India and Ideology

Why Western Thinkers Struggle With the Subcontinent

Nation builders: Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi in Bombay, 1946.
Nation builders: Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi in Bombay, 1946. (Max Desfor / Corbis / AP)

The Indian Ideology. By Perry Anderson. Verso, 2013, 192 pp. $19.95. 

According to Perry Anderson’s new book, The Indian Ideology, India’s democracy -- routinely celebrated as the world’s largest -- is actually a sham. It is fatally compromised by its origins in an anticolonial struggle led by the “monolithically Hindu” Congress party, which Anderson holds largely responsible for the bloodiness of the partition of the British-ruled subcontinent in 1947. Anderson describes India’s most famous leader, Mahatma (“Great Soul”) Gandhi, as a crank and a “stranger” to “real intellectual exchange.” Jawaharlal Nehru, Gandhi’s political disciple and India’s first prime minister, was a mediocrity. And both of these upper-caste maladroits were considerably inferior to their sharpest critic, B. R. Ambedkar, the leader of the Dalits (low-caste Hindus) and the main framer of India’s constitution. 

In Anderson’s telling, Nehru, who inherited the colonial “machinery of administration and coercion,” entrenched dynastic rule, thus blighting India’s political progress and failing to make an effort “to meet even quite modest requirements of social equality or justice” for the Indian poor. The much-vaunted secularism that Nehru bequeathed to India was nothing more than a cover for “Hindu confessionalism,” which is enforced to this day in the Muslim-majority valley of Kashmir, where Indian troops and paramilitaries enjoy a “license to murder” that is even broader than the one their British predecessors exercised during colonial times. Yet despite these compound flaws, liberal Indian intellectuals continue to “fall over themselves in tributes to their native land,” exalting what Anderson deems to be fabricated notions of its diversity, unity, secularism, and democracy.

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