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Why Perry Anderson is wrong

Mihir S Sharma  |  New Delhi 

First things first: Perry Anderson’s new book, The Indian Ideology, is a magnificent achievement. It is a product of his ability, near-unique in today’s world of ideas, to distill a country’s history and politics into a few thousand words that are at once combative and informative — a quality much admired by those of us who slavishly follow his work in the London Review of Books, where the essays that make up this book first appeared. Given the breadth of Professor Anderson’s reading, it seems almost petty to focus on the many factual errors that creep in. Not so when it comes to errors of understanding, however. And, tragically, on this occasion he appears to have let righteous anger persuade him into making many of those, deeper, mistakes.

Over the book, Professor Anderson’s main thrust slowly becomes clear. States are unpleasant creatures; nationalist narratives even worse. India, like the US, makes claims about its state and its nationhood broader than most other countries’ — and so more irritating. Professor Anderson has given vent to his irritation over 60,000 words — a laudable aim, an understandable target. Sadly, much of his irritation is based on a limited perspective; and the remainder is born of an inexplicable desire to miss the point.

He telegraphs this right in the beginning, by correctly noting that there is an unusual consensus among a set of remarkable Indian scholars well known in the West – he quotes Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Ramachandra Guha and Amartya Sen, among others – about the special and admirable nature of the “idea of India”. However, his argument rests on the assumption that these writers are representative. As we know, they are not. Most academics in India are more Marxist in orientation, and view them as outsiders; they are not followers of the influential school of Indian historiography known as “subaltern studies”, which Professor Anderson completely ignores; and the Indian state’s view of itself is a great deal more socialist and identity politics-driven than Messrs Guha and Mehta would like. Nor do they represent the great mass of Indians who care little for Gandhi beyond the iconography, and have an active contempt for Nehru. Indeed, popular opinion is, worryingly, that the largely non-violent, inclusive, compromising struggle for independence these scholars justly celebrate was not quite hard and “masculine” enough to take unalloyed pride in — don’t most of us far prefer to remember men like Bhagat Singh, who wrote more than once that “terrorism is a necessary, inevitable phase of the revolution”? What smug consensus, then, does Professor Anderson wish to destroy?

In his dance of destruction, he ends up exalting the unworthy, damning the admirable, and comically missing even the windmills at which he tilts. Most obvious is his absurd softness towards and – both, in different ways, dangerously authoritarian – merely because they have been unfairly, in his opinion, excluded from the story of independence. (They have not. Professor Anderson should go to Mumbai, and ask the man on the street if he prefers Savarkar to Gandhi; or to Kolkata, and ask about Bose and Nehru.)

But even worse is his attempt to somehow skewer the idea that the Indian project is indeed strangely, ineffably unique. The very facts would suggest it: the diversity, the poverty, the unbelievable unpreparedness of what became this country for liberal democracy that nevertheless unexpectedly survived, if in an attenuated and imperfect form. Yet, to Professor Anderson all states are the same, and all those who shape them, like Nehru, necessarily problematic. The Indian state has committed dreadful and shaming crimes on its margins, which he details. Yet he errs in insisting that this reveals a state and irredentist nation-building project like any other. Nehru, he says, was fundamentally a nationalist, quoting his overheated Swinburnean odes to Indian antiquity. Nehru wrote those, like many other deracinated and desperate men, to recapture some fantasised-of “roots”; yet his claims and his justifications were resolutely liberal and cosmopolitan. That unfortunate breed, liberal cosmopolitans, is prone to using state power to extend the borders of liberalism as they see it. That doesn’t make them nationalists in the way either Professor Anderson – Perry or his brother Benedict – would imagine that community.

The revanchism of Nehru and his ilk emerged from elsewhere: a devotion to the nature of the new-born Indian state. They were statist for the sake of what they thought the state could do and represented – modernity, socialism and all that – not because it was the embodied eternal India. The point Professor Anderson so solidly misses is the nature of that side of the Indian “nationalist” project inspired by Rabindranath Tagore. For those, of whom Nehru was one, liberal cosmopolitanism begins with the creation and defence of a liberal multi-ethnic state and sensibility. (Manu Bhagavan’s recent The Peacemakers: India and the Quest for One World discusses this quite well.)

Nothing can dismay a cosmopolitan more than to discover a nationalism making cosmopolitan claims. Yet such claims are more justified when the Indian state makes them than otherwise. Perhaps that just irritates more.

Perry Anderson
Three Essays Collective, October 2012
184 pages; Rs 350

First Published: Thu, November 01 2012. 00:26 IST