The past predicts a fragile future

Lineages of the Present - The Geopolitics of South Asia - Reinventing India
February 1, 2002

There is a discernible shift towards the historical in studies of Indian politics. An historical view is required to explain the subject successfully and to make a reasonable evaluation of it. All three of these books offer distinctively historical understandings of politics in the subcontinent, but in rather different ways.

Graham Chapman's book is the most straightforwardly historical: it offers a long-term historical view of the civilisation in which the two concerns of geo-politics - power and space - have to be understood.

Stuart Corbridge and John Harriss, too, offer a highly complex historical view of power in contemporary India after 1947, while Aijaz Ahmad's essays think through some of the most emotive and painful episodes of the history of modern Asia by looking at the possibilities open at crucial points of time. This restores a salutary sense of how far past events were provisional rather than inevitable.

Chapman offers to a mixed audience of social scientists and interested laymen, a comprehensive and intelligible view of South Asian civilisation. This is a daunting task, but Chapman's selection is economical and effective. Because his intellectual interest is consciously directed at the past from the present, his analysis intends to show how this vast, diverse, complex and constantly transforming continent evolved towards modern forms of political coherence.

It is common to deplore the fact that the British empire was succeeded by two states instead of one; but historically it is equally legitimate to wonder that it led to two or three states rather than many more.

Chapman suggests that three forces contributed to long-term unities of people and space in South Asia. First, people had a shared intellectual and cultural identity. Common economic and administrative contexts, giving rise to common compulsions and incentives, helped integration in a utilitarian way. But Chapman also highlights the simple coercive force of states and empires.

Second, Hinduism and Islam provided strong integrative forces. Hinduism celebrates the luxuriant plurality of creation, but traces this plurality to the creative intention of the same God, who appears in many forms. Islam, by contrast, submits diverse peoples to the rule of the single deity. Despite their differences, both are ways of uniting cultures. Unlike in other contexts, in South Asia neither of these religions was able to overwhelm and eradicate the other; and this failure produced a complex and distinctive civilisation.

Finally, British rule introduced strong institutional frameworks and presented new political ideals to supplement feelings of a shared identity.

The book offers a brief overview of the politics of the three states that emerged after the withdrawal of empire and ends with two useful chapters on water disputes and international geopolitical conflicts. Chapman pulls off his ambitious project, producing a book that should be useful for geographers, historians and students of politics.

Corbridge and Harriss's analytical study seeks to be comprehensive in a different way. There has been a spate of complex and high-quality reflections on Indian political life after independence, probably because of an understandable fascination with the miraculous resilience of India's bustling democracy. But this literature is often fragmented between disciplinary specialisms. The authors have brought these discussions together into a single, impressively complex argument, without losing the subtlety peculiar to each discipline, and have been able to bridge the widening gap between arguments from political economy and cultural studies.

They show - with critical commentary on the relevant literature - how forces of the modern state and nationalism matured in the context of colonialism. Their account gives careful attention to the institutional structure produced by the Constituent Assembly, and particularly to animating principles of political equality - an explosive idea in a hierarchical society. They offer a searching account of initially imperceptible, but definite shifts in habits of governance, from Jawaharlal Nehru to the electoral communalism into which Indira Gandhi drifted.

They provide a finely crafted analysis of the dual dynamics of contemporary Indian politics - the crisis of secularism and creeping structural changes of economic liberalisation. Their approach combines an attempt to understand the movement of ideology with the formation and movement of social classes.

In the 1980s, Indian politics went through a widely recognised crisis in which the central ideas and institutions that shaped the country in the first three decades faded, malfunctioned and declined. For the authors, Indian politics is in the process of fundamental restructuring, but not inevitably for the worse. They have combined a powerful analysis of capital and class formation with a subtle examination of shifts in ideological forms to produce a persuasive explanation of the direction of Indian politics. The scope of the study, the complexity of its argument and its rich combination of methods makes it perhaps the best comprehensive analysis of modern Indian politics.

Ahmed is a noted cultural critic who uses history in yet another way in his collection of essays. The collection combines two sides of his work: one following the political destinies of the two states that came out of a single empire, another analysing large movements of literary culture and political ideas. He is an excellent observer of both fields, with equal fluency in literature and political analysis and, more rarely, in the quite different cultures of politics in India and Pakistan. He is one of the few Marxists who can produce comparative analysis of the two states and unlike more staid Marxist accounts, Ahmad's do not degenerate into deterministic prophecies of inevitable disaster. He is sensitive to the fact that classes and institutions are helped and impeded in what they do by the more intangible but powerful movements of ideology. The political essays offer a fascinating account of the contradictions in Muslim politics before independence, and pursue these themes into the complex destiny of the elite groups that created Pakistan but did not inherit its institutional benefits.

Ahmad is equally fluent in the different accents of India's messy and at times violent democracy. In a series of interconnected essays, he observes with increasing moral concern the dangerous lurch from Indira Gandhi's populism to the final decline of the Congress and the indistinct but growing menace of Hindu nationalism and its threat to traditional syncretistic religion and modern secular norms.

Ahmad's narrative of Indian democracy is comparative in a double sense: he draws startling and illuminating contrasts with the parallel but different trajectory of the state in Pakistan, dominated by military authoritarianism, and makes a striking comparison with Antonio Gramsci's powerful analysis of the growth of fascism in Italy. But the best pieces in the collection deal with the historical transformations of Islamic culture in the subcontinent.

Ahmad's scholarship and literary sensitivity allow him to produce a set of haunting pictures of a cultivated but imperilled civilisation. Using Gramsci, he shows that nations, despite claims to an invincible antiquity, are always unfinished, provisional and fragile - reversible effects of past and present political practice. The creation of Pakistan, and its slide into corrupt dictatorial rule was a tragedy, not a triumph of Islam. Equally, his studies of the rise of the BJP, and the compelling intimations of fascism he derives from a comparative reading of Gramsci, also advise against complacency.

Indian democracy can be vulnerable to insidious subversion by increasingly brutal forms of majority rule that speak the language of democracy while subverting it. Despite the variety of subjects, the essays in Ahmad's collection are held together by an underlying unity of argument and concern that links the tragedy of partition with the impending catastrophe of this kind of subversion. Identity politics, as the history of the subcontinent shows, despite its occasional and restricted usefulness in fighting collective injustice, generally undermines democracy by making the majority insensitive and overbearing and the minority convinced that it will never be safe unless it creates a state in which it can become a majority. The tragic moral at the end of the stories of militant Islam and Hinduism that Ahmad tells, is that civilisation is fragile.

Sudipta Kaviraj is reader in politics, School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

Lineages of the Present

Author - Aijaz Ahmad
ISBN - 1 85984 765 X and 358 1
Publisher - Verso
Price - £25.00 and £14.00
Pages - 366

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