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Mainstream, Vol. XLVI, No 18

Flawed Attempt to Analyse the Evolution of Modern India

Tuesday 22 April 2008, by K S Subramanian



Vishnu’s Crowded Temple: India Since the Great Rebellion by Maria Misra; Allen Lane-Penguin, London, 2007, pp. 535, price: £ 25 (UK).

The author is a lecturer in Modern History at Oxford University and a Fellow of the Keble College. She has presented the television series An Indian Affair, broadcast on Channel Four, and is also the author of Business, Race and Politics in British India. The Indo-British parentage of the author also impels the Indian reader to read the book with extra interest! The author states that in the course of her work, she spent much time in the celebrated India International Centre in New Delhi discussing Indian history and politics with many people (a historian, a film-maker and a few politicians are named). Surprisingly, the author does not seem to have worked in the library at the Nehru Memorial Museum in New Delhi, which is Asia’s best on Indian history and the haunt of visiting scholars!

The book departs from conventional historiography by providing the reader a stimulating detour on crucial aspects of current Indian politics and public policy. William Dalrymple observed recently that Indian historians, being mainly professional academics, write only for each other, often using arcane language, which repels the ordinary reader; that his own work on the last great Moghul emperor of India was a work of popular history addressed to historians as well as lay readers. Maria Misra’s book falls in the same category and tells its unconventional story with ‘brio, wit and style’!

At the outset, the author states that mainstream interpretations of modern Indian history fall into three schools of thought: liberal, Marxist and subaltern. Liberal accounts tell a story of the triumphant Westernisation of India and of how the British legacies of democracy and free market were grafted on to Indian nationalism resulting in the democratic republic of India today. The abandonment of planned economics in the recent period in pursuit of corporate globalisation is seen as a logical development of such legacies. Marxist approaches, on the other hand, stress that such legacies are deeply rooted in the social and economic inequalities of the structure inherited from the past. This is an inevitable consequence of the Raj’s strategy of collaborating with the elites of Indian society entrenched in certain social classes and their powers and privileges. Thus, independence in India meant no radical break with the colonial enterprise but only a ‘re-staffing of its executive board’. The subaltern school, which emerged in the 1980s, modified the Marxist approach and held that the crucial divisions in Indian society were not economic but cultural. The hybrid Indian elites having imbibed Western and cosmopolitan mores from their erstwhile British masters had sought to impose a wholly ersatz ‘modernity’ on India’s subaltern classes. While these approaches have contributed their own insights, they tend to neglect the ‘persuasive and persistent influence of hierarchical assumptions in all spheres of life—economic, cultural, social, religious and political life’, which the author states that her book seeks to highlight. According to her, her work is neither a tale of straightforward liberal modernisation nor of a struggle between the all powerful elites and a hopelessly subordinated poor, but tells the story of India’s ‘complex and halting evolution into a very particular kind of modernisation’ as a consequence of the British impact.

She states that when British power arrived in India, Indian society was very fluid with thousands of local ‘jatis’, kinship networks, clans, militias and even occupational guilds operating as against the formal four-fold ‘varnashrama dharma’ valorised in the high brahminical texts. The British took caste and religion, not land ownership and martial prowess, as the informing principles of Indian social organisation. After the Rebellion of 1857, the British, through their censuses, property laws, their recruitment to the Army, quotas for jobs and universities, electoral schemes and so on, created positive incentives for Indians to seek a particular caste status or a fixed religious identity for themselves and to deny it to others. Moreover, the colonial system depended heavily on Indian allies, princes, great landlords and Brahmins for the task of governing India.

The British rule, however, was Janus-faced. Though the Raj was founded upon a hierarchy of race, caste and religion, the challenge of the nationalists forced it to assume a mask of democracy, which was notable for its high rhetoric and limited reform. The Indians, for their part, manipulated the multiple contradictions of the Raj, in order to capture a share in power by stages. However, beneath the elite-led manipulations, radical egalitarian social movements among the lower castes and untouchables erupted demanding a re-ordering of power. After independence several grand projects of integration and modernisation, such as those by Nehru and the Hindu nationalists, were set in motion by the Indian elite with contradictory results and problems.

THE book tells the complex story of India’s revolution in three parts. Briefly, chapters 1 and 2 narrate the erection of the British Raj before the First World War and bring out the response of the Indians. Chapters 3, 4 and 5 explore the crisis of the imperial system and the efforts of the Indians to overthrow it. The last three chapters provide an account of the Nehruvian and the Hindu nationalist projects in independent India and deals with the ‘silent revolution’ of the lower castes and untouchables, which emerged in the 1980s and the 1990s.

In a final section, ‘Epilogue or Divine Developments’, the author seeks to sum up the findings of her rapid-paced and readable study. She says that independent India has developed its own ‘peculiar form of modernity, the most striking feature of which is its highly atomised, fragmented and diverse citizenry’. Identities of caste, religion, community and region often overpower broader loyalties to the nation-state. The state, thus weakened, lacks a deeply entrenched legitimacy with no will to develop on the part of the government. The lack of a common purpose and identity among the people helps perpetuate poverty and poor infrastructure even while fostering a robust democratic culture. Elections as a relatively peaceful means of brokering competing claims help India’s castes and communities to resolve their differences. Though Indian democracy with its caste and communal politics has its negative aspects, the 2004 general elections have thrown up positive signals and ushered in a better kind of politics forging ‘more integrated coalitions’ and creating the possibility of experimentation with rival strategies of development and of compromises being arrived at. Laloo Yadav, the lower caste politician who became the Union Railway Minister in 2004, has demonstrated that these castes are not fundamentally incompetent or unmeritorious, but are capable of leadership qualities that attract global attention!

The author is of the view that the great obstacle to the process of sustained liberalisation in India is its lack of popular legitimacy. There is ‘something of a mismatch between the groupist sentiments of Indian politics and the individualist ethos on which free market liberalisation is founded’. While the wealthiest 20 per cent of the population have benefited from liberalisation, the remaining 80 per cent consisting of peasants, artisans, shopkeepers, bazaar merchants, clerks, middlemen and teachers have not. To them, liberalisation appears as nothing more than a selfish and rapacious scramble for the dispossession of the little man and the ruination of the environment.

The author makes a passing reference to the protest movement led by the Naxalites but ignores a whole range of other patterns of political violence, emerging out of the development process, endemic in different parts of India such as J&K, the North-Eastern region and the central tribal belt, challenging the project of modernity ardently pursued by civil society leaders. An Indian scholar of the ‘subaltern’ school, which the author rejects, has persuasively argued that the arena of nationalist politics in colonial India was ‘a site of strategic manoeuvres, resistance and appropriation’ by different groups and classes in society. The Indian state, which came into existence in 1947, did not represent all classes and groups in society but only the dominant elites. This has resulted in ‘dominance without hegemony’, which led to an ‘ontological divide’ in Indian politics. The emergence of the Naxalite movement in the late 1960s, representing the lower peasantry, was a manifestation of the divide. Another scholar postulates a basic contradiction in post-colonial India between the modernising aspirations of the ‘civil society’ located in urban centres and the democratic urges of the ‘political society’ situated in rural India. This contradiction gives rise to a variety of social conflicts and violence. Maria Misra’s limited approach disables her from examining the several class, ethnic, regional and religious conflicts and violence in India arising out of the specificities of its colonial and post-colonial history. The farthest she would go in forecasting any revolutionary change in India is to say that the crowded temple of the Hindu upper caste deity Vishnu, maintaining rank, order and hierarchy in society, is being replaced by the rapidly emerging new temples for the ‘subaltern’ deity Hanuman!

The author makes interesting use on the cover of the book of an offset print of 1937 showing an Indian goddess-woman standing and constituting a large part of the Indian national flag along with pictures of many leading Indian nationalist figures. On another inside page, she reproduces a 1948 print showing the apotheosis of Gandhi, blending Hindu and Christian iconography with a depiction of the various stages of the Mahatma’s political career. A reproduction dating from 1912 also shows the Hindu ‘holy cow’ in bright colors with other holy Hindu figures depicted on its body, being threatened by the demon ‘Kalki’.

The story told by Maria Misra is by no means a new one nor unfamiliar to Indian readers. Her ‘new interpretation’ of modern Indian history is also not particularly original. The author’s use of the nationalist Hindu imagery on the cover page and the illustrations inside perhaps makes the book attractive to Western readers but may not impress the perceptive Indian reader! Focusing on the majority Hindu community, they neglect the Muslim and other religious, caste and tribal communities which have also played a crucial role in Indian history.

The book is also seriously flawed by the author’s benevolent attitude to the role of imperialism in India and her failure to theorise it as a historical phenomenon. She does not nail down its organic economic role in the extraction of surplus value from India for the financing of industrial capitalist development in the UK. The East India Company did not come to India for any philanthropic purpose but to promote trade and to make money. The author’s formulation on imperialism in her introduction is telling (p. xxviii-xxix):

The role of the British on the Indian historical stage should not be exaggerated: the subcontinent is too vast and too ancient, and the British presence too brief and microscopic for them to be seen as the leading players. However, while their political and economic power was always highly circumscribed, their interventions in shaping the culture and identity of Indians at a particular point in the nation’s unfolding drama were not without significance.

This flies in the face of the massive evidence painstakingly put together by scholars exposing the exploitative character of imperialism in India. The cat is out of the bag and the author is exposed as being biased in favour of imperialism.

Despite this major limitation, the author deserves our compliments for the efforts she has put in to make sense of the complex and complicated history of modern India.

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