It's fun when you start a discussion which is joined by people who know more about the subject than you. This was my pleasant reward for my post on Perry Anderson's jeremiad on independent India in the London Review of Books, which drew thoughtful comments and useful correctives from Patrick O'Donnell, Rich Booher, and Randy McDonald.
Particularly interesting was a pointer to an excellent response to Anderson by Ananya Vajpeyi. I won't go into the details here, but I was struck by the following.
1. Any Indian under the age of 90—my parents' generation were still very much under the emotional grip of Gandhi and the Independence movement—has had many many conflicted and conflicting thoughts about Gandhi, Nehru, and Congress. As Vajpeyi writes: "Gandhi-bashing is a hallowed tradition in India’s intellectual left, a form of compulsory hazing without which entry to higher circles of the academy has been all but barred in recent memory." But of course Indians value being citizens (or in my case a former citizen . . . sigh!) of a free country (though everywhere we are in chains, blah blah blah). It is therefore a toxic shock when somebody like Anderson unleashes his unadulterated, undiluted venom on those who made that freedom possible. There is no undertone of affection, or even respect, in Anderson's portrait of our great men, and though his cognitive content is not new, we are as much taken aback by his scowling visage as we would be if our pet dogs suddenly attacked us. (Incidentally, Vajpeyi documents the many unacknowledged Indian sources of the Andersonian critique.)
The principal founders of the Indian republic were all idiosyncratic in their modernism: Gandhi was averse to bureaucratic and militaristic forms of state power; Tagore was opposed to nations and nationalism; Nehru was a committed secularist who yet valued tradition as the anchor of modernity; and Ambedkar rejected Hinduism and caste society outright.
It is one of the great strengths of the movement that these men could operate together. Anderson attributes the continued unity of India to the continuation of the administrative system that the British put in place. (Actually, in this respect, the British owed much to the Mughal administrative system that preceded them.) Without wishing to contest the importance of the Indian Civil Service, the Indian Army, and its successors, surely the unity of diverse ideologies in Congress was also a factor. (Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin had more in common than they.)
3. The intellectual irritant that brought forth Anderson's animosity becomes clear in the third of his essays. (The third essay is a potted tour d'horizon of independent India, with exaggerated outrage inserted in places where most Indians would instead express disappointment or despair.) He remarks that "the truly deep impediments to collective action, even within language communities, let alone across them, lay in the impassable trenches of the caste system." Yet,
Gandhi declared that caste alone had preserved Hinduism from disintegration. His judgment can be given a more contemporary application. Caste is what preserved Hindu democracy from disintegration.
In other words, it was caste that stood between India and a communist revolution, and Gandhi approved of the caste system. That's the animus. (To be clear, Anderson acknowledges that Gandhi did not approve of the status of Untouchables—the people who fell outside the caste system. What Gandhi accepted, or possibly defended, was the system of hereditary professions, and the religious traditions that went with this system.) But this is just bunk. Who knows why India didn't have a communist revolution? And actually is it such a big mystery? There has only been one such revolution since WWII . . . if you take Mao's military victory over the Nationalists as a revolution. Pace Marx, revolutions are not historically inevitable. On the contrary, they are singularities.
Vajpeyi ends her essay with a truth that is worth quoting in extenso.
To say that Gandhi did wrong on numerous occasions is one thing. But the claim that India’s anti-colonial and anti-imperialist movements . . . were in no way responsible for the decolonization and democratization of India is patently indefensible. Gandhi may have . . . made any number of miscalculations, missteps and bad judgment calls in the course of his 50 year-long career in political life. But what counted was that he, together with his associates in the Congress, in the ashrams, and throughout the public at large, created and sustained a climate of ideas . . . inculcated habits of personal and political praxis . . . and made the quest for self and sovereignty so paramount, that getting India its independence became the principal political project of the age. And with the freedom of India the path was cleared for the decolonization of huge swathes of Asia, Africa and Latin America. Yes, surely the Second World War hastened the dissolution of the British Empire, but neither Allies nor Axis powers came to rescue India: in the end, she liberated herself.
Such a man deserves a better epitaph than the callow one that Anderson accords him, which (paraphrased by Vajpeyi) is this: "Had Nathuram Godse not done the Mahatma the favour of shooting him dead, his life would have ended in either ignominy or obscurity, like so many other leaders of the so-called Third World." Now, what kind of jerk would write such a thing?