by Namit Arora
Perhaps no single event has had a greater impact on the politics of modern South Asia than Partition, which created the nation-states of India and Pakistan, and later Bangladesh. The genocide 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, demonization, and layers of taboo.
In 2011, 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 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, such as Pakistani historian Ayesha Jalal and Indian jurist HM Seervai, Singh’s interpretation has gained ground. Yet few historians have offered a sharper account of it than Perry Anderson, who humanizes many icons of Indian nationalism, restoring to them their rightful share of human follies.
One such icon is Nehru, a disciple of Gandhi with a crippling ‘psychological dependence’ on him, but whose ‘intellectual development [was] not arrested by intense religious belief’. Nehru, a Brahmin, was born into a higher social class than Gandhi, a Bania. Anderson notes that Nehru was not religious, had extramarital affairs, and ‘had acquired notions of independence and socialism Gandhi did not share’. That said, Nehru’s ‘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.’ To Anderson, The 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 his tactics in Congress, even Nehru reflexively associated Hinduism with the nation. Anderson cites historian Judith Brown’s view of him as ‘an “utterly reliable” prop of the old guard within the party’. Many a times, writes Anderson, Nehru presented the caste system in ‘a roseate light’: a division of labor with advantages, not a division of laborers 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 a chacha, also oppose reservations on the grounds that they would ‘[lead] to inefficiency and second-rate standards’. A poor judge of character, writes Anderson, Nehru surrounded himself as Prime Minister with ‘a court of sycophants’, and launched the dynasty with the elevation of his daughter—devoid of any obvious qualifications for the role—to Congress presidency. He was nevertheless a liberal democrat by conviction, writes Anderson,
‘As prime minister, he took his duties in the Lok Sabha with a conscientious punctilio that put many Western rulers to shame, regularly speaking and debating in the chamber, and never resorted to rigging national elections or suppressing a wide range of opinion. So much is incontestable. But liberalism is a metal that rarely comes unalloyed. Nehru was first and foremost an Indian nationalist, and where the popular will failed to coincide with the nation as he imagined it, he suppressed it without remorse. There, the instruments of government were not ballots but, as he himself blurted, bayonets.’
Anderson’s portrait of Nehru has omissions, but backed by telling examples from Nehru’s writings, speeches, and actions, it provides a much-needed counterpoint to the paroxysms of adoration more common among liberal Indian historians.
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 two percent of the population (comprising ‘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 to 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, which 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 Gokhale as an ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity — left the 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 here on, the exigencies of competitive electoral politics would inevitably have led to Partition, but 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 unfavorably with other Muslim parties in Punjab and Bengal, which made it easier for Congress to regard the Muslim League with hubris. Meanwhile, Anderson writes, Congress was ‘monolithically Hindu’ in the 1930s, ‘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, Congress 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 the England-educated Jinnah had become the sole spokesperson of 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’ to 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,
‘[Jinnah] seems to have calculated that the British, confronted with the incompatibility of the aims of League and Congress, would … impose a confederation … on the two parties, in which the Muslim-majority zones of the subcontinent would be self-governing, with a central authority weak enough not to impinge on them, but strong enough to protect Muslim minorities in self-governing Hindu-majority zones. In the event, the cabinet mission produced a plan close enough to this vision. But for Nehru, such a scheme was worse than partition, since it would deprive his party of the powerful centralised state to which it had always aspired, and he believed essential to preserve Indian unity. Congress had insisted on its monopoly of national legitimacy from the start. That claim could no longer be sustained. But if the worst came to the worst, it was better to enjoy an unimpeded monopoly of power in the larger part of India than to be shackled by having to share it in an undivided one. So while the League talked of partition, Jinnah contemplated confederation; and while Congress spoke of union, Nehru prepared for scission. The cabinet mission plan was duly scuppered.’
Similar accounts have been offered by scholars Ayesha Jalal, HM Seervai, and AG Noorani. Jinnah was apparently nothing like the glowering scoundrel that bore his name in Richard Attenborough’s biopic Gandhi.
If Nehru comes off smelly in Anderson’s account, so does Louis Mountbatten. ‘British imperialism did not favour partition’ in South Asia, 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 realized.
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? Indeed, wasn’t this outcome made likelier by the imperial state’s mission to socially categorize its subjects, a process initiated by the census of 1871-72 that made religion a primary site of political conflict and rivalry? Nor does Anderson go back far enough to consider the role the British and their idea of religion unwittingly played in shaping the emergent Hindu identity and nationalism, especially the muscular Hinduism imagined on monotheistic lines. These should be included, if our goal is to catalogue all factors that contributed to the gathering of the communal impulse in the Subcontinent. Anderson however proposes a far more provocative factor: that even without the ‘soft Hindutva’ of Congress, political awakening may have, sooner or later, made bloody conflict between the two religious communities inevitable. He adds,
‘Such a conclusion, however, is not more palatable to polite opinion in India than the alternative. Confronted with the outcome of the struggle for independence, Indian intellectuals find themselves in an impasse. If partition could have been avoided, the party that led the national movement to such a disastrous upshot stands condemned. If partition was inevitable, the culture whose dynamics made confessional conflict politically insuperable becomes a damnosa hereditas, occasion for collective shame. The party still rules, and the state continues to call itself secular. It is no surprise the question it poses should be so widely repressed in India.’
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. 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,
‘Nehru’s regime, whose priorities were industrial development and military spending, was barren of any such impulse. No land reform worthy of mention was attempted … Primary education was grossly neglected.’
The masses voted but didn’t organize for collective action due to the deep social stratification of caste, along which lines they would later be mobilized 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. Did no other contingent factors play a role, 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 particularly suitable as a 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 one percent of them are Muslim, 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 contextualizes the rise of BJP and sees it more as an inflamed tumescence on a body of Hinduized secularism, which, he correctly notes, exists ‘by default, not prescription’. In other words, the gap between the ideal and the reality of secularism is large. Many even hold that ‘India is secular because it is Hindu’. 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 in India, is also a dubious thing since massive coercive force has gone into preserving it, whose cost the Indian intelligentsia self-censors. 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 his 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. His 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 in India’, and a ‘licence to murder … [by which] Indian troops and paramilitaries were guaranteed impunity for atrocities’. Indeed, as Anderson writes, 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 dominant 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’. He cites telling examples from Ramachandra Guha, Amartya Sen, 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 in other nations are more responsible, but can an answer here dent the validity of Anderson’s claim about these individuals? 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 provoke angry, defensive reactions. Detractors will claim to find in this work the ghosts of the Raj and Orientalism, or the rant 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. Limiting oneself to such responses 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.
The review appeared as “No Saints or Miracles“ in the Himal Southasian print quarterly 'Are we sure about India?' (January 2013), and is reproduced with permission. This online version (updated, about 5 percent larger) first appeared on 3QD.