Questioning the nationalist doctrine

In the contemporary political scenario of India, Perry Anderson’s Indian Ideology comes alive. With the gradual ideological drift of Indian state from its initial centrist position towards the right, critical perspectives on state and society become more relevant than ever. Anderson, who teaches History at the University of California, Los Angels has emerged as one of the most critical voices on Indian state over the years. Anderson questions the very ideological foundations of the Indian nationalist doctrine expressed by its most distinguished scholars like Pratap Banu Mehta, Ram Chandra Guha, Achin Vinaik, Meghanand Desai, Amartya Sen etc. The book helps us understand why India has come a long way from its initial “pretensions’’ of democracy, communal tolerance and pluralism to the current negation of each one of them, in practice, if not in theory. As a reader tries to understand the basic propositions of the book, it appears that what’s happening in India today was predestined to happen.

The book contains three chapters: Independence, Partition and Republic. In the first chapter, Independence,  Anderson makes a scathing critique of Indian exceptionalism parroted by its politicians and corroborated by some of its finest academicians. In these “ patriotic reveries”, Dr Manmohan Singh sees “no parallel in history” with India’s struggle for independence, “culminating in a constitution that’s the boldest ever statement of social democracy”[pages 7-8]. For Meghnad Desai, India’s ‘unity with diversity’ is ‘nothing short of a miracle’. Pratap Bhanu Mehta declares that Indian democracy is “ a leap of faith for which there was no precedent in human history”. Amartya Sen celebrates India’s traditional toleration of “Intellectual heterodoxy”. All these claims rest on an ‘idea of India’ that unrealistically traces the origin of the ‘nation’ in ancient times. “The idea of India was essentially a European not a local invention” writes Anderson taking a cue from Tapan Raychaudhari. According to Choudhary, the idea that the very diverse population of the subcontinent constituted a nation was also of course a product of British rule”[quoted on page 15]. The author also critically analyses the role of nationalist leaders and notes with disdain that Gandhi’s entry into Congress “injected a massive dose of religion into the national movement” and though all religions, he sincerely believed, were equal before the Lord but “at a political level, one religion was, inevitably, more equal than the other” [pages 22-23]. Gandhi announced in 1919, that “India is fitted for the religious supremacy of the world” and  “few could doubt which religion he had in mind”.  Like many authors, Anderson too casts Gandhi in the mould of a caste apologist. Gandhi believed that “casteism was not a human invention”….and even the “seeds of swaraj are to be found in caste system”[page 38]. He also believed that caste system had “saved Hinduism from disintegration”. His unbecoming statements threw his non-violence to winds. “I would risk violence a thousand times than risk the emasculation of a whole race” [slightly better than RSS doctrine]. “If He wants to destroy the whole world through violence using me as His instrument, how can I prevent it?”. In 1942, he told reporters that in India ‘rivers of blood’ might be the ‘price of freedom’. In 1946, he told the Viceroy, ‘If India wants blood, she shall have it.’                                                                                            

About Pundit Nehru, Anderson joins the chorus with rightwing voices of India to maintain that he was initially intellectually mediocre and Netaji Bose was much more brilliant in his studies and more patriotic. Nehru  colluded with the ousting of Bose who was, unlike him, “ immune to the spell of Gandhi and a rival capable of denying him succession”.                                                                                                         

In the second chapter titled Partition, about Jinnah’s disaffection with Congress, Anderson notes that “for decades, he had been rebuffed by a Congress whose sociological reality he could see all too clearly. In composition, it was essentially a Hindu party……whose rule at the centre was unlikely to be more congenial to Muslims than it had been in the provinces” [page 59]. Nehru rejected any idea of a coexisting Muslim nation within the larger nation of India as ‘absurd’ and ‘fantastic’ as the “ tremendous and fundamental fact of India is her essential unity through the ages”. Jinnah declared Day of Direct Action in response to Nehru’s ‘emotional insanity’. The Muslim patience with a constitutional road was over. In his bitter comments, Anderson says, “ While the League talked of partition, Jinnah contemplated a federation and while Congress spoke of Union, Nehru prepared for scission [page67].   


The author records how Nehru’s fantasies about Kashmir and ‘pro- Hinduness’  of Lord and Lady Mountbatten became catalystic in its “annexation”. Even the press was threatened to adopt a pro-India line on Kashmir operation. Even Gandhi felt proud when he heard ‘the noise of  those aeroplanes’. “On the other hand, annexation of Hyderabad took place with 2740000 Muslims massacred dwarfing the killings by Pathan raiders in Kashmir which India has ever since used as the casus belli for its annexation of Kashmir”. About  Sheikh Abdullah’s depth of popularity, the author is doubtful. When intelligence reports regarding this were adverse, all talk of a plebiscite ceased. Badshah Khan, who was much more popular in NWFP, lost a referendum. This laid heavily on New Delhi’s mind.                                                                                                                                                                               

In the third chapter, Republic, the author pooh-poohs claims of pluralism in India through its advertisement of token presence of Muslims in sports, Bollywood, science, bureaucracy etc. and claims that this doesn’t change the material conditions of the multitude and most of them are much worse off than second-class citizens. As secular values take a back seat, political parties resort to what Anderson calls ‘competitive desecularisation’.  The result is a blurring of ideological boundaries to a point where talk of religion, religious values, ‘purer’ and ‘truer’ forms of religion becomes common from right, left and centre.

In his responses to the criticism of the book, Anderson takes up four issues: assessing the figure of Gandhi as a leader and as a thinker; judging Congress’ path to independence; role of religion in the national movement and the resulting state; role of caste in the development of democracy and capitalism in India. The book has already generated anger among scholars because “ it strikes a sensitive nerve among a sector of opinion that believes, quite sincerely, that it’s highly critical of much in the Indian state and Indian society and is stung by a critique of these that is not only in a number of respects sharper and more systematic but unauthorized by origin”.

Syed Shafiq Ahmad is a teacher, Govt High School, Wani Doursa, Lolab