LRB Cover

Send letters to:

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and work and home telephone numbers.


Gandhi and After

Perry Anderson believes that to attribute political acumen or historical agency to Gandhi (for the mass mobilisations that led to decolonisation) or Nehru (for shaping and stabilising post-independence democracy) is to play into the ‘Indian ideology’, a fantasy that runs from the early days of Indian nationalism right down to Manmohan Singh (LRB, 5 July, 19 July and 2 August). But Indian assessments of Nehru and Gandhi have ebbed and flowed, arguably reaching a critical low in the 1980s, in the wake of the Emergency and widespread disillusionment with Congress politics. Gandhi himself has always been a polarising figure: the hagiography is met with an equally insistent counter-narrative that purports to unmask Gandhi as a political manipulator and/or a religious crank. In India today, under the veneer of official reverence, the public attitude to Gandhi is one of rebuke and disavowal, from the Hindu right, on one side, and Dalits, on the other. The current reassessment of nationalist-era leaders and thinkers – the rehabilitation of Nehru especially – is not, as Anderson argues, simply the latest episode in an unbroken tradition of blind self-congratulation and collective egoism. Rather, it is an effort at an intimate criticism of India’s democratic experience – one that seeks to understand the specificity of that experience, its contradictions, failures and future trajectory.

Instead of engaging directly with these analyses of the intellectual and institutional foundations of Indian democracy, Anderson opts for a ‘cosmopolitan’ broadside against nationalism as such, in which modern Indian politics appears hopelessly atavistic, parochial and saturated in Hindu superstition. The most startling of his simplifications is his obsessive return to latent ‘Hinduism’ and ‘caste’ as the explanation for the limits of Indian politics and political imagination. Plenty might be said about the Orientalism of his description of Hinduism and the ‘iron’ laws of caste. But most egregious is his wish to reduce the deep dilemmas of modern representative democracy to religious belief and sectarianism. The struggles over majority and minority representation before and after partition are genuine conflicts about the meaning and practice of democracy, and have very little to do with arguments about religious worship, belief or authority. Congress can and ought to be taken to task for neither understanding nor taking seriously Muslim anxieties about Hindu political dominance. But why describe the problem of entrenched majoritarianism as a ‘confessional’ issue? In plural postcolonial societies especially, democratic competition has repeatedly reconstituted and exacerbated communal divisions, making them politically salient in new and often threatening ways. The causal force here is not religious piety or premodern superstition but the logic of modern politics. Where has hard secularism permanently cured the threats of majoritarian entrenchment and minority exclusion? Where has universal suffrage led to the massive redistribution of wealth that 19th-century liberals feared and socialists hoped for?

In his detached historical judgments Anderson offers a style of political criticism he wishes Indian intellectuals would emulate, ridding themselves of romantic intoxications and deference to Hindu social norms. His concluding hope and recommendation is that the rough and tumble of Indian politics be corrected and purified by the exit of Congress and the removal of ‘caste consciousness’ and ‘Hindu superstitions’ (which may, on his account, amount to the same thing). On both counts – but especially in the dream of a secular politics free of irrational and prideful desires – political fantasy is offered in the language of cool realism. To Weber this would look very much like an ethics of conviction where the purest radicalism is prized over political truth.

Karuna Mantena
Yale University
New Haven, Connecticut

Why does Perry Anderson, in ‘Gandhi Centre Stage’, rehearse in such detail what we’ve heard about India so many times before? I will take just one example, his use of Macaulay’s minute of 1835. ‘The modernising force of the Raj,’ Anderson writes,

was not limited to its locomotives and law books. It was official policy to produce a native elite educated to metropolitan standards, or as Macaulay famously put it, ‘a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect’ … Two generations later, a layer of articulate professionals – lawyers, journalists, doctors and the like – had emerged, the seedbed of Congress nationalism.

Teleological and developmentalist, this classically colonial interpretation is a gross misrepresentation of events on the ground. Long before it was ‘official policy to produce a native elite educated to metropolitan standards’, Indians had for their own reasons been demanding of reluctant British officials an English education. British government policies at the start of the 19th century were tilted in favour of the classical languages of India and against the study of English. Gauri Vishwanathan, in Masks of Conquest, showed how, in 1816, in an attempt to change those policies, Rammohun Roy and other eminent Indians approached the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Sir Edward Hyde East, to tell him of their desire to form, as the judge recorded, ‘an establishment for the education of their children in a liberal manner as practised by Europeans of condition’. Further:

When they were told that the government was advised to suspend any declaration in favour of their undertaking, from tender regard to their peculiar opinions, which a classical education after the English manner might tread upon, they answered very shrewdly, by stating their surprise that they had any objection to a liberal education, that if they found anything in the course of it which they could not reconcile to their religious opinions, they were not bound to receive it; but still they should wish to be informed of everything that the English gentlemen learned, and they would take that which they found good and liked best.

A wish to plunder Western knowledge, adapting it so as to take only ‘that which they found good and liked best’, remained the predominant national attitude to Western thought throughout the following century. Later, Tagore, Nehru and Gandhi all endorsed that point of view when they spoke of the beneficial effects of inflecting Indian philosophies with Western science. The hybrid national life that was a modernising force in colonial India was not gifted to the Indians by the Raj alongside ‘locomotives and law books’, but wrested from it by different classes of Indian for their own purposes and profit.

But perhaps Anderson’s evocation of Macaulay is appropriate in an article that dismisses a swathe of contemporary Indian intellectuals – Meghnad Desai, Ramachandra Guha, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Amartya Sen, Sunil Khilnani – while also failing to engage with the full spectrum of Indian intellectual history. While I’m sympathetic to his irritation that these writers ‘fall over themselves in tributes to their native land’, I wonder that he couldn’t find a few Indian scholars in more oppositional mode; or is he saying there are none? In their place, he finds only Kathryn Tidrick to praise, reminding us of that other infamous Macaulay quote, that ‘a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.’ One can only ask, after Said’s epigraph to Orientalism, taken from Marx, if we must continue to be represented because we cannot represent ourselves.

Rosinka Chaudhuri
Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta

Perry Anderson understates the extent of collective leadership and mass politics in Congress under Nehru and ignores the political pluralism within the party at the time of Nehru’s supposed passing of the mantle to his daughter. He suggests a seamless succession and elite consensus, whereas the process was protracted and messy, and the outcome uncertain. The Congress leadership, the old guard known as the Syndicate, understood Indian politics as a collective effort and their own role as a shared endeavour, while acknowledging Nehru as primus inter pares. In the years after Nehru’s death, the Syndicate did not understand Indira Gandhi’s appointment to the party leadership as anointing her as leader of the country. They persisted in the illusion that they could control her, and fought hard to preserve their collective power in the party. Her struggle for dominance against the Syndicate was based almost entirely on a forceful appeal to the aspirations of India’s poor and marginalised to economic and social inclusion. Measures such as the abolition of the privy purses of former Indian royalty, and the nationalisation of banks to promote lending transformed the nature of Indian political discourse. Such policies were of course a populist ploy by a thoroughly elitist pol-itician, but the aspirations and expectations they unleashed permanently opened up Indian politics in unanticipated ways.

Anderson’s suggestion that the wealthy farmers’ break from Congress in 1977 was a break from their caste subordination in the Congress system is belied by the substantial benefits Congress policies had long conferred on them. Their break with Indira’s government had everything to do with economic interests and policy. The ‘wealthy farmers’ were a broad group including the moderately well-to-do, and were practising capitalist farmers rather than feudal elites or latifundists. They included groups enriched and empowered as a result of agrarian and fiscal policies after independence.

Anderson’s discussion of the pernicious role of caste in the Indian polity deserves credit. But to suggest of Nehru’s Congress party that ‘at the summit of this hierarchy, and at the controls of the state machine, were Brahmins’ is incorrect, as the figure of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel (cited often by Anderson) and the presence of other Vaisyas, Kshatriyas and even Muslims in the senior leadership of party and government demonstrate. An Uncle Tom the Dalit Jagjivan Ram may have been, but he proved one of the most powerful politicians of his era.

Anderson misses something vital about contemporary caste politics. Whatever the distractions and dysfunctions of symbolic identity politics, and whatever the weaknesses of a fractured polity, the big story of modern India is that the newly empowered political forces Anderson describes are the result of social, economic, occupational and educational empowerment of historically disadvantaged castes by state actions and policies. The alliances of convenience between castes with disparate interests, which Anderson finds distasteful, could just as well be seen as a sign of political maturity. They are little different from the interest group politics, coalitions and policy-making found in most democratic societies.

Finally, Anderson’s outrage at the Indian state leads him to a puzzling indulgence of Indian fascism. He downplays the fascist potential of the RSS on the grounds that there is no ‘subcontinental equivalent of the interwar scene in Europe’: a strange basis on which to judge. But most egregiously he downplays the significance of the Gujarat pogrom – massacres, rapes, dismemberment and displacements sanctioned at the highest levels of state leadership, directed by state politicians and officials, and carried out or permitted by state officials and police. He argues that these were no worse than other massacres that had occurred in the past. But they were. When such atrocities come out of the blue in peacetime, they carry a distinct significance and are peculiarly threatening to their victims.

Amit Pandya
Silver Spring, Maryland

Perry Anderson’s critique of Gandhi recapitulates a number of problems in the historiography of modern India that have become staples over the past three decades, ever since Ranajit Guha’s Dominance without Hegemony: History and Power in Colonial India (1997) and Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India (1983). The possibly derivative character of Indian modernity; the belatedness of the arrival of capitalism; the continuities between the colonial and the postcolonial state; the conundrum of a caste society before, during and after colonialism; the eccentricity of Gandhi as a man and a leader; the dissonance between the effort to build a non-violent independence movement and the reality of a violent partition; the incompleteness of India’s revolutionary transition from feudal colony to democratic nation-state; the gap between the historical experiences of subaltern and elite classes: historians of India, and especially those on the left, have debated these claims with exemplary thoroughness. Anderson makes no reference to Ranajit Guha, Partha Chatterjee, Shahid Amin, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Gyan Prakash or others of the Subaltern Studies school, whose books might have strengthened his argument on a number of fronts. Nor does he do justice to the Indians he quotes in his opening salvo, all of whom, while being occasionally appreciative of the achievements of Indian nationalism, have also provided detailed analyses, criticisms, correctives and models that have laid the foundation of a new history of political thought in modern India.

As for the essay itself, to say that Gandhi did wrong on numerous occasions is one thing. But the claim that India’s anti-colonial and anti-imperialist movements, including the national movement led by the Congress (which treated Gandhi as its leader for the three decades leading up to independence), were in no way responsible for the decolonisation and democratisation of India is indefensible. Gandhi may have called off this or that mobilisation, withdrawn from active politics when he ought to have stayed in the game, backed a worse rather than a better candidate for some position of influence within the party, or made any number of miscalculations or bad decisions in the course of his political life. But what counted was that he, together with his associates in the Congress, the ashrams and the public at large, inculcated habits of personal and communitarian praxis (charkha, or weaving by hand; khadi, or making hand-spun, hand-woven cloth; satyagraha, or non-violent resistance), created and sustained a climate of ideas (swadeshi, swaraj, ahimsa), and made the quest for sovereignty so paramount, that achieving independence became the principal political project of the age. With the freedom of India the path was cleared for the decolonisation of huge swathes of Asia, Africa and Latin America. No doubt the Second World War hastened the dissolution of the British Empire, but neither Allies nor Axis powers came to rescue India: in the end, India liberated itself.

Ananya Vajpeyi
Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi

Perry Anderson says that Kashmir became part of India in 1947 ‘with a forged declaration of accession’, and that the document then disappeared for ‘over half a century’. Not quite. The maharajah of Kashmir was pushed into joining India by an invasion of Pakistani tribesmen, and there’s little doubt that he signed the instrument of accession. A facsimile of the crucial page bearing his signature was published more than forty years ago, and the entire document was posted on the website of India’s Ministry of Home Affairs. However, when I sought permission to consult the original, I was told – it would be nice to think that the play on words was intentional – that the Indian government had ‘not acceded’ to my request.

There is certainly something fishy about the circumstances of the accession. The evidence is compelling that the maharajah signed on 27 October, but was told to record the date as 26 October. In other words, he put his name to the document a few hours after India began an airlift of troops to the Kashmir valley (the beginning of a military presence that continues to this day), but in a manner which suggested it had been signed before the military operation began.

Andrew Whitehead
London NW5

While Perry Anderson’s analysis of the disastrous process and poisonous legacy of decolonisation and partition in India is welcome, his focus on the (undoubted) personal shortcomings of Gandhi, Mountbatten and Nehru distracts attention from the more structural factors at work, in which the handover of power in India and Pakistan served as a blueprint for the wider process of decolonisation. Central to this was the overriding aim of British politicians and administrators (supported by the United States) to hand the keys of newly independent nation-states to a single nationalist party and its (usually moderate, Western-leaning) leader, in whom the diverse interests of complex societies were vested and conflated, and who received the covert or overt sponsorship of the colonial administration in the years immediately before and after independence.

In this process – carried out with increasing haste across the diminishing British Empire in the 1950s and early 1960s – complex, disparate and conflicting anti-colonial movements were, as in India, reduced to monolithic nationalist parties. In colonies such as the Gold Coast, Tanganyika, Kenya and Northern Rhodesia such parties, modelled on Congress, conflated their particular interests (political, economic, social, cultural) with those of the proto-nation-state, mapping their party symbols and slogans onto the nation. This had the effect of rendering illegitimate, anti-nationalist and even treasonous the interests and perspectives of those sections of these diverse societies that could not or would not be subsumed under the leadership of such men as Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta or Kenneth Kaunda. The British national archives demonstrate the significant extent to which the departing colonial power contributed to the rapid transition to de facto or de jure one-party states and dictatorships in many newly independent nation-states, the logical consequence of prioritising the self-serving myth of national unity over democratic self-determination.

Miles Larmer
University of Sheffield

Of Time and Temples

John Gale rightly points out that the word temenos, a word frequently used for a shrine or sacred precinct, depends on an underlying metaphor of cutting and demarcating, from the Greek verb temno, used literally for slicing and hewing and wounding, and metaphorically for a ship cutting the waves or a plough furrowing a field (Letters, 2 August). The difficulty that imagining or describing time presents to the human mind led to a further spatial use of this metaphor to mark off duration. Ernst Cassirer connects this to time-keeping before clocks, which might be done by observing the passage of the heavenly bodies and shadows on the ground: ‘The simplest spatial relations,’ he writes in The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, ‘such as left and right and forward and backward, are differentiated by a line drawn from east to west, following the course of the sun, and bisected by a perpendicular running from north to south – and all intuition of temporal intervals goes back to these intersecting lines.’ This idea of sectioning and marking off became a metaphor we live by, and produced the Latin tempus and templum, and myriad derivatives – maybe even ‘temperature’, another kind of measurement.

In my piece about Damien Hirst, I was quoting the Catalan philosopher Eugenio Trías from an illuminating collection of essays, Religion, edited by Jacques Derrida and Gianni Vattimo. Trías notes the contemporary turn towards the sacred as a symbolic communal event rather than inward prayer or a private act of faith. I did propose a connection between ancient temples and contemporary museums, but I didn’t mean to say (as Gale thinks) that time is made to stand still in these precincts. Rather, it is being told there – marked or counted down – at a different pace that is powerfully seductive to artists and their audience.

However, the connection between mass assemblies, their precincts and stretching time seems to me even stronger in the wake of the Olympic Games, which have led to such intense and fervent displays of secular public symbolism. I hadn’t noticed before just how important accurate demarcations of the lanes, the pitch, the track, the field and the ring are in every sport during the Games: all those shots of the ground being examined to ascertain exact measurements, talk of split seconds being shaven off speed records, world champions surpassing their nearest rivals’ highest and longest jumps by infinitesimal increments. But even as the athletes were running or swimming faster than anyone ever had, the effect of all these sections and truncations was to prolong the passage of time. For a sports virgin like myself, it was unimaginable that a nanoslice – how long is 0.014 of a second? – could count at all, let alone make a difference after a race of ten kilometres. And it was astonishing to experience an interval of less than ten seconds as a momentous event: the 100 metres race seemed to take longer than I would shuffling along for miles. In the setting of a temple on a global platform, the athletes were in effect cutting up the passage of time in different ways, according to the logic of imagining space-time, and the stadium turned into a gigantic and special kind of clock, in which time was moving both faster and slower in front of our eyes.

Marina Warner
London NW5

Pain and Peril

Diarmaid MacCulloch sees ‘overtones of purification from ritual uncleanness’ in the service for ‘thanksgiving of women after childbirth, commonly called … churching’ in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer (LRB, 24 May). Perhaps MacCulloch is thinking back to the similar service in the 1549 first prayer book of Edward VI, which indeed refers to purification. The 1662 service, however, has no suggestion of uncleanness or purification: it is a simple service of thanksgiving for delivery from ‘the great pain and peril of childbirth’. The Church did not wait for the ‘revolution in gender relations’ of the 1960s to remove all references to uncleanness and purification.

For that reason, when in 1987, during its work on a New Zealand Prayer Book/He Karakia Mihinare o Aotearoa, the General Synod of the Church of the Province of New Zealand proposed to remove ‘The Churching of Women’ from the list of authorised services, and replace it with one of Thanksgiving for the Gift of a Child, I successfully opposed the deletion of the 1662 service.

A.E.J. Fitchett
Dunedin, New Zealand

Where have all the gay writers gone?

Christopher Glazek asks how we can account for ‘one of the more puzzling features of the postwar literary era … the collapse of the gay novelist’ (LRB, 19 July). That’s like asking about the ‘collapse’ of the Eastern and Central European dissident novelist. Just as the collapse of communism diminished the need for ‘dissident’ novels, the success of the gay movement in North America and much of Europe diminished the need for ‘gay’ novels.

Gay novels may no longer be necessary in the way they once were, but representations of same-sex relations remain open to writers who can figure out their relevance to present conditions. When books like Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story (1982), Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance (1978) and even Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City (1978) appeared, they had, for their mainly gay readership, the function of newspapers, dispatches from the front. Indeed, Maupin’s book was first published in serialised form in the San Francisco Chronicle. Their merits as realist novels were inseparable from their political function. Glazek asks where the significant contemporary gay writers can be found. He should look in places (and there is no shortage of them) where homosexuality is still a contested issue. The Hungarian writer Péter Nádas is one example, Poland’s Michal Witkowski (Lovetown, 2005) another.

Glazek’s brief history of contemporary gay writing and writers who were homosexual doesn’t mention the ‘new narrative’ group of mostly gay writers, active from about 1985 to the mid-1990s, who were explicitly interested in modernist and postmodernist prose. The best known of these is Dennis Cooper, whose cycle of half a dozen novels from Closer (1989) to Guide (1997) explores the queer punk scene; other examples include Robert Gluck’s Jack the Modernist (1985), Kevin Killian’s various books and my own Buddy’s (1991).

Stan Persky