India Now and Then

A Review by Ahmad Saidullah

ScreenHunter_03 Sep. 27 09.23 Sudipta Kaviraj. The Imaginary Institution of India: Politics and Ideas. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010. 299 pp. $29.50.

I. Approaching India

Written in the 1980s and 90s, Sudipta Kaviraj’s eight essays on the intellectual history of politics and culture in India, with their heavy overlay of theory, are not meant for the casual reader.

He covers various topics: the specific nature of Indian democracy; aspects of Jawaharlal Nehru's and Indira Gandhi's regimes; political culture in independent India; the construction of colonial power; the relationship between state, society, and discourse; the structure of nationalist discourse; language and identity formation in Indian contexts; the links between development and democracy; and the interactions among religion, politics, and modernity in South Asia.

In investigating the specificities of Indian history, Kaviraj who is Professor of Indian Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia presents himself as an outsider, a social theorist wary of rushing in where “historians, the most well-informed group about colonial societies” fear to tread.

Kaviraj has been associated with marxist and subaltern approaches to studying India's social and political life. These views have challenged the historical presentation of European colonialism as the great story of the triumph of western reason, science, and modernity. This narrative of modernity influenced Indian nationalists, the writing of nationalist histories, and the developments of the postcolony itself. “The external character of modernity is inscribed on every move, every object, every proposal, every legislative act, each line of causality including the externality of the historical project,” Kaviraj notes.

Like his colleague Partha Chatterjee at Columbia, Kaviraj prefaces his essays by acknowledging the limitations of these counter-approaches. Some forms of marxist thought reduce the history of rationalism to an economistic account of extractive capitalism. Others, in their attempts to draw a picture of society, seek to bring forward “an alternative epistemology of the subaltern classes…a hard task under any circumstance but particularly difficult for intellectuals drawn from the middle class.”

He examines Indian politics through western political philosophy and the perspectives of Indian history and indigenous political thought. Kaviraj is interested in India as a cultural entity with a diverse history and culture. His work is shaped by a belief in the plasticity of Indian politics in reflecting and shaping the world in which people live. He is keen on investigating whether the concepts used by historians of all stripes are adequate for understanding the culture and politics of India.

As colonialism ruptures the self–relations of a society through time, he sets out to find fundamental histories of epistemological concepts embedded in social practices that can enable scholars of Indian society to draw legitimate interconnections between the “world, nation and self.”

II. Gadamer and history

Kaviraj notes “the immense cognitive indebtedness of Indian nationalist history to the academic conventions of British empiricist historiography.” Many Indian historians who followed this model implicitly accepted the epistemological program of British empiricist social sciences.

Applying Gadamer’s criticisms of method to histories of India, Kaviraj suggests that the proper understanding of Indian politics comes through accurate interpretations of the nation’s social life and culture, through its humanity. This project lies beyond the usual compass of British empiricist historiography, limited as it is by the inductive reasoning of the natural sciences. In empiricist histories, there is a splitting of human consciousness between subject and object. The latter is alienated and controlled. Concepts are often presented as facts.

Kaviraj aspires to a “reasoned historical self-understanding,” to use Gadamer’s phrase. Kaviraj follows Gadamer’s concept of Bildung which implies a unifying movement towards universal consciousness achieved through education and cultural refinement. Bildung, common sense, judgment, and taste form the “guiding concepts of humanism.”

Kaviraj’s critical approach implies the need for a second-order discourse in histories which unearths such concepts in history writing. For him, narrativization and history can be understood in two senses, first as stories and accounts but equally importantly as colligatory, higher-order accounts of conceptual spaces or relations between discrete events in the past. Kaviraj says that, among the many “factual” narratives that resist theoritization, “the rationalist history of Europe was about as trustworthy as the European history of India.”

The choice of narratives remains a political act which necessitates self-awareness. The history of politics in India should be willing to step outside itself and become its own object of criticism. In Kaviraj’s words, “the historical discipline, cautious and measured about facts, has to become more hospitable to more risky theoretical generalizations.”

He studies concepts, categories, theories, social practices, conventions and languages to help us make sense of a society whose accounts of itself, its social formations, and ways of thinking have been changed or interpreted by colonial history. He examines the field of these ideas to see what they have meant to their various audiences, how they have been used or enacted, and whether they have the capacity for framing a proper understanding of India.

III. Colonialism and politics

An example of this critical-historical approach of spaces and difference is expressed through Hegel’s metaphor of circle of circles when Kaviraj describes the traditional social forms of Hindu community organization before contact with the British. Paraphrasing Tolstoy, Kaviraj says that while “capitalist societies are structurally similar, each type of pre-capitalist society is traditional in its own way.”

Although the caste system (varna) was rigidly hierarchical, power in its ceremonial, political, epistemological, economic and social forms was decentred and segmented among loosely organized or “fuzzy” religious communities (jati/samaj), a permanent social order where identities were various, communitarian, and fluid. The innermost circle was the site of the ceremonial state concerned with exacting rent and revenues. It did not play a role in changing or structuring the existing social organization or interfere with daily living.

As a result of this distributed dominance, rebellions were rare and sporadic although Buddhism, Jainism and Bhakti cults posed strong challenges to Hindu orthodoxy and religious organization. Islam in India was doctrinally more egalitarian than Hinduism but the Mughals understood the world in the same terms. For the four hundred years of their rule, they did not greatly change the traditional social forms.

As their first contact was with traders, not directly with the state, the rajahs, badshahs and nawabs saw the British as partners and allies rather than as a threat. Their shared structures of consciousness (what Kaviraj calls “the conceptual grid”) left the Muslim and Hindu rulers of India “conceptually unprepared” for the British takeover of India which followed the 1857 insurrection and spelled the end of the Mughal empire.

“Despite the venerable antiquity of a cultural sense of India,” says Kaviraj, “the construction of a political India is rather recent.” Kaviraj’s focus is partly on how “the power of European capitalist empires entered pre-colonial Indian society and transformed it, eventually establishing the peculiar institutions of the British Indian colonial state.”

After nationalizing the East India Company, the Crown took over the administration of India. Initially, it kept the form of the Mughal state for extracting rent and revenue but that changed slowly as it laid securer foundations for its rule. At first, it acted with restraint. Social change was slow, except in response to pressure from native reformers.

The political alterations of deep socio-cultural and economic arrangements by the colonial state after 1857 using the rhetoric of modernity created a new society that changed cognitive structures in India. The colonial state reconstituted “common sense through channels of encouragement, emulation, pressure, control” to enable it to rule more effectively.

Early barriers to colonial rule arose from custom, religious orthodoxy and ritual interdictions. However, while the English used orientalist scholarship and literature to secure its foothold in the east, Kaviraj shows in a brilliant intellectual biography how the indigenist thinker Bhudev Mukhopadhyay, not as well known as Bankim, reversed orientalist concepts to oppose colonial rule.

Although India is constitutionally a secular democracy, Kaviraj points out that there were other forms of nationalism in the colonial era than Nehru’s secular nationalism. The history of Indian nationalism is complex and not easily periodized but Kaviraj agrees with Chatterjee’s view that the right-wing ideology of Hindu nationalists emerged as part of the elite’s consensus with British imperialism.

A class of acquiescent English-educated Hindu elite in Bengal, created by the British to help colonial rule, was complicit in re-imagining India to exclude Muslims, a legitimation device for the British conquest of India. This politicized self-awareness of religious identities is an “unhappy consciousness” (Hegel’s phrase). Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay, a leading positivist in the mid-nineteenth century, urban, middle-class, English-educated phenomenon known as the Bengal Renaissance, exemplified this in his earlier writings.

The elite was also contemptuous of the masses. Excepting Derozio’s Young Bengalis, most Bengali intellectuals did not support the 1857 or the indigo rebellions. In a country with mass illiteracy, the colonial state promoted and codified, with the help of missionaries, the elite’s Calcutta dialect as the written standard for Bengali. Mutually intelligible Bengali and Oriya speakers were separated into two political states. There was a decision to ignore vernaculars such as Khadi Boli when choosing norm languages. Demotic speech, along with Arabic, Urdu, Hindustani and Farsi, were devalued. The gap between elite high culture and the masses’ subaltern culture grew. The heteroglossia of India diminished into the diglossia of the elite.

The colonial state used the printing press and other tools of print capitalism to produce “a new world of maps, boundary lines, divisions, numbers and statistics.” Regions, resources, languages, practices, castes, majorities, minorities, institutions and other categories of identity were enumerated in ways that were “norm-setting and hierarchical.” Many of these changes have endured to this day.

By counting “Muslims against Hindus,” the colonial state pitted the two major Indian religious communities against each other. While censuses may have given communities a sense of the size of their collective self and enabled them to coalesce and “imagine” the nation, they also spurred the growth of Hindu majoritarianism which became politically rampant in the 1990s.

The discursive structures and strategies the British used to control the social world changed over time. Early colonial discourse focused on the British as the heirs of ancient Greeks and Romans with a unique civilizational mission (Engels termed them “civilization mongers.”) Their justificatory narrative of modernity and progress developed and shaped a new language of authority. Europe’s conquest of India was seen as a consequence of its scientific advance.

Kaviraj points out that the British worked in a dual context. They had two publics for their discourses and actions: the governed in India, now individual subjects of the Crown, and citizens in England. Kaviraj notes that “Britain could not, without infringing the laws of colonialism, introduce forms of political rule current in Europe.”

While liberal states enshrine the legal and property rights of every citizen, Indian nationalists who were covetous of European history and “the cultural meaning of Europe” felt, from their utilitarian perspectives, that they had equal rights to the narrative of reason. They soon discovered that, in practice, they did not. The same political concepts produced entirely different meanings and results in India than they did in England.

Rabindranath Tagore, Gandhi and Bankim in his later writings were sceptical of the claims of rationalism and modernity. In some of his court appearances for his activities against British India, Gandhi used his legal training to exaggerate the punishments for his acts under such a “rational” system of justice. Indians also became aware of dissenting strands of thought in Europe—marxist, romantic, even orientalist—that challenged this narrative of rationalism.

Ultimately, nationalists accepted that colonialism “hindered politico-economic development in the direction of capitalism, liberalism, modernity.” Democracy and modernity—a paradox in the logic of capitalism—would be possible only under self-rule but mobilizing opposition against the colonial state proved difficult. Because of the new linguistic and social divides between the elites and the masses, the new vocabulary of rights and entitlements could not be easily popularized.

“Subaltern cultures remained private and confidential” with few dialogic connections to the elite or their rulers. Further, the impersonal structure of the state hid from the people the real targets of political opposition. Gandhi, with his brilliant use of populist symbolism, alone “bridged the gulf between the two sides,” and “kept the values, objectives and conceptions of the world of the two sides intelligible to each other.”

IV. Independent India

After independence, the deaths of Vallabbhai Patel and Gandhi meant that Nehru, who, according to Kaviraj, did not understand the importance of Indian culture in political life, was able to chart his modernist version of a Keynesian path for independent India as a developmental state. Predictably, the discourses and the institutions of the modernist state failed to reach most Indians.

Unfortunately, despite or because of a vast bureaucracy, described by Kaviraj as an “unreconstructed colonialist bureaucratic style, wholly monological, primarily wasteful, utterly irresponsible and unresponsive to public sensitivity,” the state failed to engage most of its citizens. Nonetheless, Nehru developed strong regional authorities by devolving powers to state governments. Expert groups were given the task of planning public goods and services.

However, it was under Nehru that the country began “the greatest experiment with democracy in the history of the world.” A commitment to secularism, social justice and welfare, affirmative action measures, minority rights, modern nationalism, industrial modernity, education, democracy, official recognition of major languages, centralized planning, institutions, and impersonal power are some themes of the new India.

Ironically, Indira Gandhi’s government spread its messages of social and economic justice, however cynically, more effectively to the masses. Unlike her father, she centralized power, strengthened the party, and weakened the country while galvanizing and engaging the electorate. The popular groundswell of opposition to her suspension of democratic rights under the Emergency showed how strong grassroots political movements, had become in India, even among the subaltern classes. The bureaucracy began to include “the lower orders” in its ranks but its inefficiencies and corruption increased.

After Rajiv Gandhi’s flirtation with communalism (as religious intolerance is known in South Asia) on the Babri Masjid issue in Ayodhya, VP Singh’s Janata Dal government promoted affirmative action plans for “lower castes,” creating a split along caste lines in the Hindu majoritarian cause. Kaviraj credits PV Narasimha Rao, building on Rajiv Gandhi’s interests in modernization and science and technology, with effecting the most radical economic reforms and liberalizing trade, the blueprint for India’s economic boom today.

Kaviraj analyses the 1990 elections in which the right-wing BJP won a majority. The BJP election set into motion violent, regressive social forces against Muslims and other Indian minorities and called into question the Indian constitution itself. Kaviraj notes “I cannot hide my anxiety that this [Nehruvian] discursive justification of pluralist nationalism has been failing in recent years…there is no guarantee that the more civilized positions will win out.”

V. Concluding remarks

His pessimism has to be guarded against, given the power wielded now by “lower-caste” parties in the decades not covered in this volume. The Imaginary Institution of India is the first of three planned volumes of Kaviraj’s writings. Coalition-building among minority, “lower-order” groups and lower-caste-specific parties are political realities in India. Social and economic mobility have elided the high culture-subaltern divide. Kaviraj says that democracy, despite many shortcomings, has succeeded in India in the Tocquevillan sense. It has transformed everyday, fundamental social relations even among the traditionally less empowered.

One can question Kaviraj’s investment in Gadamer’s approach to understanding. His hermeneutics is grounded in Bildung, defined by Herder as “the reaching up to humanity.” The Bildung tradition was an elite, sometimes bourgeois, practice in Germany and Austria and not necessarily a means for understanding other cultures, particularly “lower” cultures. Bildung refers to a “rounded” humanist education for achieving high culture through the refinement of common sense, taste, judgment, insight, self-consciousness, and freedom from bias.

Further, such a totalizing enterprise as Gadamer’s is easier to recuperate in smaller, linguistically uniform European states than in India with its tremendous religious, linguistic, and cultural complexities. While Kaviraj bravely references Bengali, Sanskrit, Brajbhasha, Khadi Boli and English in his essays, a truly reasoned self-understanding of Indian social life must remain fragmentary or composite because of this.

Ahmad Saidullah is a prizewinning Canadian writer. His book Happiness and Other Disorders: Short Stories was published in Canada and India in 2008. It was shortlisted for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award and longlisted for the Crossword Vodafone Book Award in 2009. A French translation of the book by the University of Ottawa Press will be published in 2011. Ahmad lives in Toronto, Canada.