Perry Anderson’s Revisionist History of India

Last year, Perry Anderson released three essays (here, here, and here) in the London Review of Books, that formed the bulk of a monograph he released later that same year. The essays (and book chapters) focus on the Indian independence movement, the partition of India and Pakistan, and post-independence India. I’ve just finished the LRB essays because, hey, they total 45,000 words (85 pages) and they sit on the outskirts of my research agenda. This is clearly a revisionist account, but revisionism is healthy, because it forces you to buttress the conventional account through rebuttal of the criticism. If you cannot fend off that criticism across all areas, it forces you toward synthesis.

A few of the more quotable quotes (and like Twitter, quotation does not mean endorsement!):

On the recent ideational construction of India, perhaps not a surprise given Perry’s brother:

“The subcontinent as we know it today never formed a single political or cultural unit in premodern times. For much the longest stretches of its history, its lands were divided between a varying assortment of middle-sized kingdoms of different stripes. Of the three larger empires it witnessed, none covered the territory of Nehru’s Discovery of India. Maurya and Mughal control extended to contemporary Afghanistan, ceased much below the Deccan, and never came near Manipur. The area of Gupta control was considerably less. Separated by intervals of five hundred and a thousand years, there was no remembered political or ideological connection between these realms, or even common religious affiliation: at its height the first of them Buddhist, the second Hindu, the third Muslim. Beneath a changing mosaic of mostly regional rulers, there was more continuity of cultural and social patterns, caste – the best claimant to a cultural demarcation – being attested very early, but no uniformity. The ‘idea of India’ was a European not a local invention, as the name itself makes clear. No such term, or equivalent, as ‘India’ existed in any indigenous language. A Greek coinage, taken from the Indus river, it was so foreign to the subcontinent that as late as the 16th century, Europeans could define Indians simply as ‘the natives of all unknown countries’ and use it to describe the inhabitants of the Americas.”

On the early years of Indian democracy:

“The consequences [of first past the post polling rules] were central to the nature of the Indian democracy that emerged once elections were held. For twenty years, across five polls between 1951 and 1971, Congress never once won a majority of votes. In this period, at the peak of its popularity as an organisation, its average share of the electorate was 45 per cent. This yielded it crushing majorities in the Lok Sabha, amounting to just under 70 per cent of the seats in Parliament.”

A great quote from Ambedkar on the problems of caste for Indian democracy:

“Winding up the debate in the Constituent Assembly that approved the constitution, of which he was a leading architect, Ambedkar remarked: ‘We are going to enter a life of contradictions. In politics, we will have equality and in social and economic life, we will have inequality … We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which this assembly has so laboriously constructed.’”

Poor Gandhi:

“‘I have searched far and wide for another individual, placed in comparable circumstances, who has used the first person singular with such unabashed abandon as M.K. Gandhi,’ wrote one Indian critic, warning of the dangers of ‘such cocksureness in an ill-stocked mind’.”

Poor Nehru:

“As those who knew and admired him at close range were well aware, his was – in the words of Savarpalli Gopal, the loyal assistant who became his principal biographer – a ‘commonplace mind’ that was ‘not capable of deep or original thought’. The shallowness of his intellectual equipment was connected to the side of his personality that so easily drifted away from realities resistant to his hopes or fancies. It is striking how similar was the way two such opposite contemporaries as Patel and Jinnah could see him – the former speaking on occasion of his ‘childlike innocence’, the latter comparing him to Peter Pan. Gopal’s image is more telling still: early on, Nehru ‘made a cradle of emotional nationalism and rocked himself in it’, as if a child cocooning himself to sleep away from the outside world.”

Poor Nehru’s trusted advisors:

“The most damaging feature of the regime was less this centrifugal aspect than the development of a court of sycophants at extra-ministerial level. Unlike Gandhi, Nehru was a poor judge of character, and his choice of confidants consistently disastrous. Promoting to chief of staff over the heads of senior officers his henchman in overthrowing Abdullah, B.N. Kaul, a poltroon from Kashmir with no battlefield experience who fled the field at the first opportunity, Nehru was directly responsible for the debacle of 1962. For his personal secretary, he installed a repellent familiar from Kerala, M.O. Mathai, who acquired inordinate power, taking Nehru’s daughter to bed and passing his paperwork to the CIA, until his reputation became so noxious that Nehru was reluctantly forced to part with him. For political operations in Kashmir, the North-East or closer to home, he relied on a dim police thug, Bhola Nath Mullik, formerly of British employ, head of the Intelligence Bureau. The only actual colleague he trusted was Krishna Menon, an incompetent windbag who ended in disgrace along with Kaul.”

A great phrase about Indian judicial activism:

“The court, now self-recruiting, is the most powerful judiciary on earth. It has acquired such an abnormal degree of authority because of the decay of the representative institutions around it. Even admirers are aware of the risks. In the graphic phrase of Upendra Baxi, India’s leading legal scholar and one of the first to bring a public interest suit before the court, it is ‘chemotherapy for a carcinogenic body politic’. So long as the malady persists, few Indians would think the country better off without it.”

On the challenges of Muslims in Indian public life, historically and today:

“By the mid-1930s, Congress as a party was close to monolithically Hindu – just 3 per cent of its membership were Muslim. Privately, its more clear-sighted leaders knew this. Publicly, the party claimed to represent the entire nation, regardless of religious affiliation.”

“All told, the ‘security agencies’ of the Indian Union, as the Sachar Report politely calls them, employ close to two million. How many Muslims do they contain? The answer is too sensitive to divulge: as the report notes, no data on their composition are available for three-quarters of these. Put simply, Muslims are not wanted in their ranks. In 1999, a former defence minister let slip that they numbered just 1 per cent of 1,100,000 regulars. In the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and Intelligence Bureau (IB) – the CIA and FBI of the Indian state – it is an ‘unwritten code’ that there should be not a single Muslim; so too in the National Security Guards and Special Protection Group, its Secret Service corps.”

If you are looking for rebuttals to Anderson, the LRB’s own letters section has several informed criticisms. This book review is also compelling, and has the admirably clear title, “Why Perry Anderson is Wrong.” Interestingly, several of the critiques are that Anderson understates the degree to which his revisionism is already conventional wisdom in Marxist or sociologically informed Indian historical accounts.

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