Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Artificial India

Artificial India

Nehru, Gandhi and Vallabhbhai Patel, Delhi, 1946

Book Details

John Keay

MIDNIGHT'S DESCENDANTS

South Asia from Partition to the present day
347pp. William Collins. £25.
978 0 00 732657 0
US: Basic. $29.99.
978 0 465 02180 2

Perry Anderson

THE INDIAN IDEOLOGY

191pp. Verso. Paperback, £12.99 (US $19.95).
978 1 78168 259 3

Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen

AN UNCERTAIN GLORY

India and its contradictions
433pp. Allen Lane. £20.
978 1 84614 761 6

A history of partition, displacement and conflict in South Asia

DAVID ARNOLD

In the course of Partition – the bloody debacle that marked the catastrophic end to British rule on the Indian subcontinent in August 1947 – hundreds of thousands of Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs were butchered and millions more driven from their homes. "The horror", John Keay observes, "lay as much in the obscenity of the atrocities as the scale." Ethnic cleansing, murder, rape, mutilation – the violent rage of Partition appeared less impulse or frenzy than an upsurge of systematic brutality and long-harboured hatred. In Keay's account of South Asia since 1947 (with its totemic allusion to Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children), Partition was not only an epochal event that changed the course of history in one of the world's most populous regions, but also the epitome of all the violence that has plagued the subcontinent ever since. "Widely regretted at the time" and "rued ever since", Partition thus serves both as a watershed and a recurring motif of communal violence, a horror repeatedly re-enacted. There may, Keay concedes, have been antecedents for the savage tableau accompanying Partition – in "India's dark horizon of sectarian rivalry" and in the Hindu–Muslim killings in Calcutta a year earlier. But, in the main, the events of August 1947 and their long-felt legacy seem to Keay perversely counter to the geography, history and cultural affinities that endow South Asia with so much commonality. Partition, he reasons in an apparent gesture of post-imperial exculpation, "was no more a foregone conclusion in the run-up to Independence than was the genocidal mayhem of its aftermath". The "brutal dislocation" it caused "severed . . . not just the landmass of South Asia but its society, economy and infrastructure, and above all its two main religious communities". It is the artificiality of the borders Partition created (and which postcolonial regimes have doggedly sought to maintain) that strikes Keay most forcefully. He suggests that Partition was probably unnecessary in the first place, or that its violent excesses could have been avoided, if the British (and Lord Mountbatten as the last viceroy) had not been so hasty in making their departure, and if Jawaharlal Nehru and the Indian National Congress had been more adamant in their opposition and less eager for power. The lines of demarcation drawn up in unseemly haste by Sir Cyril Radcliffe rode roughshod over an equivocal terrain, but they also failed in their avowed purpose – that contiguous Muslim-majority areas were to be allotted to Pakistan, and the rest, where Muslims were a minority, would be assigned to the new India.

The partitioning of Punjab and Bengal caused trauma enough for a dozen lifetimes, and yet many of the most unforeseen but consequential events lay outside the formal boundaries of British India, in the princely states that made up 40 per cent of the subcontinent's land area. Unassigned either to India or Pakistan, Kashmir was, Keay stresses, crucial. Its Hindu maharaja, ruling over a Muslim majority, was jolted by an invasion from Pakistan into opting for India, thus bypassing the call of "Kashmir for the Kashmiris" and violating the principle that Pakistan should be the default home for South Asia's Muslims. Because of its disputed entry into the Indian Union and the threat it seemingly posed to Pakistani integrity and security, Kashmir fuelled rivalry and conflict between the successor states from the outset, sparking wars and endless confrontations. Matters were scarcely better in the south, where Hyderabad's Muslim Nizam tried to keep his Hindu-majority state independent, an ambition crushed (amid further communal bloodshed) by the Indian government's "police action" in September 1948. In India, as in Pakistan, "integration was not for the faint-hearted". But then nor was separation. What Keay calls the "absurdity of bipartite Pakistan", with West Pakistan a thousand miles distant from its eastern wing, fell apart in 1971 with the creation of an independent Bangladesh, but again at a terrible cost in terms of human lives, displacement and suffering. In India, too, claims unattended to in 1947 resurfaced to contest national sovereignty – in Nagaland and the northeast where intermittent warfare has raged since 1954; in Punjab where demands for an independent Sikh state eventuated in the storming of the Golden Temple in Amritsar in 1984, the revenge killing of Nehru's daughter, Indira Gandhi, and an anti-Sikh pogrom in Delhi. Nor were violent disputes unique to the mainland. Tamil militants in northern Sri Lanka unleashed an armed struggle against Singhalese-majority rule, and so, for a while, "another South Asian partition looked to be on the cards". For Keay the events of 1947 thus created or contributed to a long series of internal and international conflicts, but they also created the template for the communal hatred and mass slaughter that, with each successive crisis, "stirred memories of Partition".

Partition thus becomes a mantra of recurring violence, a mark of the savagery acid-etched into every conflict. But Keay also highlights the artificiality of a divided South Asia by presenting post-Partition history as a set of parallel stories – most evident with respect to India and Pakistan, but echoed in Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh – in which each country followed a similar path from initial nation-building, through populism and autocracy, to "rabid communalism", and, latterly, "frantic globalisation". Regional cooperation has had "a rather depressing record in South Asia", he notes, and Kashmir remains "unfinished business". Yet an apparent swerving away from mass violence and ethnic hatred in recent years encourages Keay to believe that pragmatism may yet prevail and the most baleful legacies of 1947 be undone. It is a worthy hope, but in seeking to provide a cogent history of a complex region and by placing such emphasis on Partition, Keay sacrifices too much of the region's longer and deeper history. By reading South Asia almost exclusively from its conflicts and rivalries, its disputed borders and contested margins, he allows too little to emerge of its internal dynamics.

Partition also looms largely in Perry Anderson's Indian Ideology. Anderson employs the word to target what he regards as a smug and celebratory view of India's recent past and troubled present, a myth, as he sees it, propagated in the writing of three leading Indian writers and their works – the political scientist Sunil Khilnani's The Idea of India (1997), the historian Ramachandra Guha's India after Gandhi (2007), and the economist Amartya Sen's Argumentative Indian (2005). Anderson views these authors as sharing an unwarranted, at best uncritical, set of assumptions – that India is unique and praiseworthy among the nations to emerge from empire in being democratic, secular and united. Anderson contests this tripartite view of Indian achievement by arguing for an alternative narrative of oppression and authoritarianism. In his opinion India's freedom struggle and its democratic aspirations were flawed from the start. The quest for independence triumphed not through the endeavours of Gandhi and Nehru, but because the constitutional process set in train by the British created its own irreversible momentum towards decolonization, and because the Second World War fatally undermined Britain's ability to hold on to India. He claims that Partition was mostly the fault of the Congress leadership – the alienation of M. A. Jinnah and the Muslim League provoked by Gandhi's Hindu politics and Nehru's "partisan arrogance". Nehru is ridiculed as vain and infantile, unable to stand up to Gandhi, seduced by his own airy rhetoric and fanciful imagining of India's past. Far from being instrumental in India's rapid transition to parliamentary democracy, Nehru is seen as presiding over the making of a post-colonial state that from the outset was reliant on violence, repression and the denial of democratic rights. Autocracy did not set in with Indira Gandhi and her lurch into dictatorship in the mid-1970s: absolutism, always inherent in the Indian state, has since 1947 been systematically sustained by brute force, unconstitutional practice and draconian laws. This authoritarian tendency has passed virtually unchecked and largely uncontested, except by the Supreme Court, almost the sole institution for which Anderson can muster any praise. He castigates India's leaders for doing nothing to redress caste inequalities and discrimination against Dalits ("Untouchables"), celebrating the lawyer and constitutionalist B. R. Ambedkar for espousing egalitarian and democratic ideals that India has consistently failed to live up to.

Anderson's gadfly technique has its virtues. It exposes some substantial faultlines in recent Indian writing about India and with some justice questions the emerging consensus around India's democratic successes. It offers some piercing, if at times intemperate, insights into the personalities involved and gives evidence of the undertow of coercion that informs many aspects of India's post-colonial regime (though even here he ignores many of the criticisms that Indian commentators themselves have voiced). But Anderson does not help his case by drawing on material that is highly selective, inaccurate, or out of date. To take a few instances: no serious historian now believes either that an Englishman (A. O. Hume) was the "leading light" of the Indian National Congress in its early years, or that the Chauri Chaura incident of 1922 (when a joint Hindu and Muslim group of protesters burned down a police station, killing twenty-two Indian policemen) arose from a riot over food prices. The desecularization of nationalist politics began well before Gandhi's return to India in 1915, with B. G. Tilak in the 1890s, and there is nothing new in remarking on Gandhi's eccentric Hinduism, his autocratic disposition and his many personal and political somersaults. Anderson is surely wrong in treating the Mahatma's role in the anti-colonial struggle so lightly: without the pressure exerted by the successive civil disobedience movements Gandhi helped lead and inspire, British rule would not have suffered the collapse in morale, authority and manpower that made constitutional concessions imperative and rendered the Raj too enfeebled to resist the likelihood of a further nationalist onslaught in 1946–7. Nehru may have been romantic, greedy for power and, as Anderson insists, too cosy with Mountbatten and intimate with the Viceroy's wife Edwina; but it is hard to see in Jinnah, the embittered opportunist, a more admirable model for democratic change. In seeking to be radical, Anderson espouses some remarkably reactionary ways of doing history. His explanation of India's independence and the origins of Indian constitutionalism read like an apology for imperial policy; his repeated emphasis on caste as the prime source of Indian inequality comes close to mimicking colonial essentialism. While extolling Kathryn Tidrick's book Gandhi: A political and spiritual Life (2006) and wondering why it did not receive more coverage in India, he ignores many other works that have transformed critical scholarship about Gandhi in the past twenty years. Wistfully regretting that the Left did not do more to shape modern India, he appears unaware of innovative work on revolutionary terrorists like Har Dayal, Shyamji Krishnavarma and Bhagat Singh who, more than the communists of the period, offered a potentially dynamic alternative to the Congress triumvirate of Gandhi, Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel. Instead, he returns us to the scholarship of the 1960s and 70s, in which the "transfer of power" was the doing of a small clique of politicians and administrators, without even a whiff of popular protest or the clamour of unmanageable revolt.

A riposte of sorts to Anderson's bludgeoning attack on the "Indian ideology" can be found in An Uncertain Glory, the latest product in the longstanding collaboration between Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen. The authors waste no time sentimentalizing over a British rule which, they show, left the majority of Indians in an abysmal state of poverty, malnutrition and illiteracy, with life-expectancy barely half what it is today. The ascent from this abyss thus constitutes one of several means by which India's progress since 1947 can be appraised. Only once – with respect to famine relief works – do the authors identify British policy as offering any worthwhile precedent for post-colonial practice. Where Keay and Anderson press, in their different ways, the case for continuity, Drèze and Sen regard Independence as a long-delayed opportunity to wipe the slate clean and redress the social neglect and economic under-achievement of the colonial era.

The India created in August 1947 is taken as a given, not as an artificial or authoritarian construct. By comparison with Anderson's biting critique, however, the commentary supplied by Drèze and Sen does at times appear saccharine. To speak in their title of the "glory" of India (even when moderated by uncertainty) seems to place partisanship above objectivity, and throughout the book, which its authors describe as "contingently optimistic", they praise India in precisely the ways Anderson finds so objectionable. Five lines into the first chapter, they declare: "India's record in pioneering democratic governance in the non-Western world is a widely acknowledged accomplishment, as is its basic success in maintaining a secular state, despite the challenges arising from its thoroughly multi-religious population and the hugely problematic history of violence around the ending days of the Raj". Oddly, among the many factors affecting India's economic performance, they nowhere assess what the country's border wars and garrisons, its massed ranks of soldiers and armed police, and its coercive policies in Kashmir and Nagaland, have actually cost the country – or whether, conversely, these are not drag chains on the economy at all but a circuitous aid to infrastructural growth and wealth redistribution.

In the main, however, Drèze and Sen steer a judicious and not uncritical course. If they find cause for praise – as in the overall effects of the post-2006 national rural employment guarantee scheme – they also identify many other areas where India is failing. Even after two decades of economic growth, the country is still one of the poorest in the world, much poorer than the other BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia and China) with which it is often compared. India can never become an economic superpower, the authors argue, while fundamental problems of poverty, maternal mortality, inadequate schooling and poor healthcare persist. Rampant corruption and a lack of accountability in the public services suggest one reason for these problems, but another is a stubborn elitism which ignores as an irrelevance the well-being of the bulk of the population. While caste is less prominent than in Anderson's book (though here, too, Ambedkar finds commendation), Drèze and Sen's India remains a bastion of inequality, forming, with widespread gender discrimination, the underpinning for an oppressive social system. "Indian democracy", they warn, "is seriously compromised by the extent and form of social inequality in India", especially so if by democracy is meant "not just electoral politics and civil liberties but also an equitable distribution of power".

Some of the most striking parts of Uncertain Glory locate present-day India not in relation to Partition's violent legacies or a history of colonial underachievement, but alongside its South Asian contemporaries. Pakistan, Nepal and more especially Bangladesh (the "basket case" of the 1970s) have, Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen show, outperformed India in many fields, including such key indicators as family planning, female education and employment, and mass immunization. That Bangladesh's "rapid progress in living standards" has been helped by the empowerment of women ought to send a clear message to India, where violence against women has been so much in the headlines lately. In many parts of India, especially the more backward north and west, gender bias against females remains a potent obstacle to economic as well as social progress. Whatever Perry Anderson might think, none of this makes for comfortable or complacent reading.

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