Perry Anderson’s ‘Indian Ideology’ – a review

‘Who is Perry Anderson?’ I asked my good friend who told me about a book written by the man. He replied that the author is a famous historian and that this particular book is a ‘good critique of the popular idea of India’. Since the book in question was titled Indian Ideology, I decided to take a look. A quick online search led me to the three essays that make up Anderson’s book. Such is their power that I found it impossible to put them down. For two days, without a break, I got drenched in completely new insights into the minds of the so-called makers of modern India.

I think it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that I haven’t read anything as stormy, revealing, concise and loaded with information about India as these three essays. Every line is a Axe – as Kafka would’ve put it – for the frozen sea within the Indian mind, an expression I don’t usually approve of in a nation so diverse.

His brutal criticism of highly respected Indian leaders, complete with who was in whose bed, is overconfident at times but never without irony. For those who don’t expect the icons of Indian nationalism to be perfect diamonds to begin with, or understand that perfect diamonds don’t necessarily lead to immaculate politics, Anderson’s revelations are reconfirming details. For the multitudes who do, however, they’re fatal blows that turn the diamonds to dust. That is, if they can manage to rise above Indian indoctrination which includes, first of all, the teaching that they should stay away from foreigners’ accounts of Mera Bharat Mahaan. But Anderson’s insights are not not limited to these individuals; they extend to the overall system in which they operated. He must be read. Very, very, carefully.

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Should M.K.Gandhi the individual be blamed for the creation of a separate Muslim state because of his Hindu revivalist agenda? It is one thing to point the finger at him for what happened but quite another to understand why it happened and whether anyone needs to be blamed at all. It isn’t as if someone other than Gandhi could have made a better choice than to let the Muslims fight under a separate banner. The Muslims had to organize and unite against the Raj, and the quickest and the most effective way of doing so was under their own banner. Ditto for the Hindus. Before blaming Gandhi for this, one must recognize that the corrupting influence of the British forced Indians to politically organize themselves as quickly as possible, under whichever banners seemed expedient at the time. Surely, one cannot blame him or the Congress for decentralizing the ‘legitimacy in the struggle for independence’ at least inasmuch as religion was concerned, especially given that the Muslim regions were large contiguous pieces of land in both the west and the east.

It is all nice to argue from the comfort of a university nearly a century afterwards that India deserved leaders who, and a freedom movement which, discarded religion while organizing against the British. But it’s not a requirement for freedom struggles. Again, it’s one thing to sit and analyze India’s freedom struggle from a different continent and another to face the heat of colonial oppression and do whatever it takes to build up opposition. Are there examples in the world of hundreds of millions organizing themselves for any reason, let alone that of achieving freedom from a colonial power, without employing religion? For those who have learnt to criticize religion every time and everywhere, it may appear incorrect for people to use it to organize, but incorrect it does not become for that reason. Indeed, why call partition ‘the calamity of… division’ unless one is obliged to follow the motto ‘what Empire has joined, let no man put asunder’? The idea of India as one political unit being ‘a European not a local invention,’ as Anderson acknowledges, why shed a tear at the inability of the Congress to keep the entire Empire under one postcolonial unit?

The manner in which the partition was achieved, however, deserves Anderson’s criticism well. The ‘political cupidity’ and the ‘territorial greed’ of the Congress are certainly not virtues, and partition could have been achieved, perhaps, in a more thought out manner, with cross-border migrations spread over a longer period of time and the mass violence avoided with utmost care. The ‘deep culture of the subcontinent’ cannot, indeed, be said to have foreordained the manner of the partition. But that foreordaining was done by the Indian imprint of the deep culture of cupidity, greed, and violence of the British and passed on to the Congress in a country that had confined itself largely to spirituality on the one hand and the relative nonviolence of the caste-system on the other.

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Anderson’s analysis of the caste-system and its effect on the freedom struggle and independent India is excellent but incomplete. In a couple of superb paragraphs, he argues that the caste-system is the reason why India’s poor outvote the rich even though they receive little more than confetti in return. While the rich have a greater capacity for collective action due to their smaller numbers, greater resources and intelligence, says Anderson with Gandhi’s Congress in mind, the poor are ‘organizationally outflanked’ by them not only due to their greater number, dispersed population, and poverty both economic and cultural, but more importantly due to the caste-system. Anderson goes on to declare, quite boldly, that caste is the ‘ultimate secret of Indian democracy’ and also the reason for Congress supremacy during the freedom struggle and after. This is because, he reasons, the caste-system has forever fixed in hierarchical position and divided from one another every disadvantaged group and legitimated every misery in this life as a penalty for moral transgression in a previous incarnation. This analysis is perfect inasmuch as the context is limited, as he rightly limits it, to the boundaries of any given linguistic community. It is in crossing the boundaries that it falters.

India is not ‘divided into some thirty major linguistic groups’ (italics added). It is defined by them. To think of India’s poor – he’s not talking about the rich here – as divided by language is to imagine them to be originally undivided by it. Who said this is true? Even when Karl Marx called out to the (poor) workers of the world to unite, it must have been clear to him that they aren’t united in the first place. Nor did they, can they, or need they, unite so as to erase all linguistic diversity in order to counterbalance the rich who do. This applies to the limited context of India, too, and it is a mistake to believe that collective action by the poor of India must necessarily happen at the all-India level crossing all linguistic borders. Everything which unites the poor must be factored in, not discarded, if at all the poor have to unite. If this means a plurality of unions of the poor, one per major language, it is realistic; not a global or India-wide solidarity of ‘the proletariat’. Here again does Anderson’s analysis fall prey to ‘what Empire has joined, let no man put asunder.’

Anderson’s analysis falls short in another place where he confronts language. While he correctly lauds the Indian nation for creating linguistic states, he fails to extend his understanding of Hindu society to linguistics. The languages of India aren’t equally poor. As I point out in my book, The Pyramid of Corruption, they aren’t independent of the stratification we see in Hindu society, viz., the caste-system. They, too, are arranged in the form of a Pyramid with the language of the Gods, Sanskrit, at the apex, and every other below it at a distance proportional to its poverty of Sanskrit influence. This Pyramid lends stability to the Indian nation in no small degree today because, just like castes languages, too, are fixed in hierarchical position and made to curse themselves for not being pure enough. This self-deprecation ensures stability via Aryan domination, not merely ‘the luck of the cultural draw’ because of which Hindi, with ‘some 40 per cent of the population, had just the right weight to act as a ballast in the political system, without risk of too provocatively lording over it.’ In fact, the ballast is not the Hindi that Anderson imagines but Sanskritized Khariboli, a.k.a. Standard Hindi, of which the speakers are far fewer. Also, just as the plural poor are ‘organizationally outflanked’ by the singular rich, the plural linguistic communities of India are, too: by the most Sanskritized within each community, invariably litterateurs and members of the upper castes, the culturally ‘rich’ who easily combine and maintain the stability of the Pyramid.

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Linguistic reorganization of states appears as ‘a real achievement’ to Perry Anderson, and rightly so. However, a true votary for federalism in India wouldn’t be persuaded to describe India as ‘a creative flexible federation, in which state governments… enjoy a considerable degree of autonomy’. Sure, Anderson adds the qualifier ‘as long as they did not offer opportunities for intervention by internal disputes or cross too boldly the political will of the centre,’ but that doesn’t do justice to the imbalance of powers between the centre and the states. The political will of the centre includes the will to keep the states without any real autonomy, as evident from the state, central, and concurrent ‘lists’ which separate powers. Anything that can be called a real power continues to remain with the centre and the states are really no more than glorified municipalities. In Pyramid rule, this illusory separation of powers suffices to keep the political class loyal to the system.

One must never forget that India’s central government is essentially an Aryan government with non-Aryan add-ons. The centralization of power in New Delhi is not merely numerical; it is markedly cultural. It would be incorrect, therefore, to compare federalism in India and the US. Not that Anderson explicitly does this, but Western writers cannot, in general, be expected to get a hang of how diverse India really is; they don’t have the first hand experience. Marxist writers in particular have a tendency to support strong governments. Indians need to be extra careful about this tendency because the most important question in India is not who should be stronger, government or business. It is who should be in either government or business: we or they. As things stand, for most of India, it’s they who are in power in New Delhi, not we. And the stronger you make them, the less democratic India becomes. Anderson does not get into these important issues.

He does not have anything to say, for e.g., about national population control schemes which, in effect, threaten to depopulate South India and continue the age-old southward migration of the Aryans. This gets so easily mixed up in the popular rhetoric of development and Indianness that diversity takes a dive; Anderson does not bring this up. Or, take Anderson’s criticism of India’s electoral system. Anderson makes a big deal of the First Past The Post system, but the real problem – the one that touches upon linguistic diversity – is rep-by-pop (representation by population). This system of representation basically ensures that linguistic communities with lower populations are less represented in the Government of India than those with higher ones. This is not a problem in a country such as the US which is a graveyard of languages, or a country such as Germany or France, where there aren’t really any significant linguistic communities that are different from the mainstream. But it is a huge problem in India. It is essentially the institutionalization of Aryan domination over non-Aryans: with 74% seats in Parliament reserved for the Aryans, the non-Aryans are simply afterthoughts who might as well not send any representatives there. The ones they do send essentially bring Aryan rule closer to the non-Aryans.

Last but not least, Hindi Imposition would have done well to form a part of Anderson’s essays. One of the features of Pyramid rule, this is the open and legal call for the speakers of every language other than Hindi to submit to second-class citizen status in India, and it hasn’t reduced after the linguistic reorganization of states. In fact, the states now don’t need to be purely created on the basis of language. The recent bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh is a case in point: the centre now finds it much easier to continue Pyramid rule, complete with Hindi imposition, with the Telugus fighting with each other over ‘confetti’ thrown at them by New Delhi — all together with the claim that India is becoming increasingly federal.

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Overall, I’d give four out of five stars to Indian Ideology. It’s a true masterpiece. One word of caution, perhaps, is that Indian readers must carefully ensure that Anderson’s wit and eloquence don’t unfairly influence their reading. We’re no strangers to such influence; one shloka in Sanskrit routinely does to us what Anderson’s English prose might.

Links to Perry Anderson’s essays: [1], [2], [3]