Four writers who were prescient in many ways about a country few get right
This December will mark the 70th anniversary of the start of India’s Constitutional journey. On 9 December 1946, the Constituent Assembly of India sat for the first time. It completed its work three years later. Over that period, almost every aspect of India’s Constitutional (and political) life was discussed threadbare. The best guide to those proceedings remains the debates of the Constituent Assembly. These have been supplemented by the memoirs of those who participated in the events of that time. Another layer has been added by scholarly literature on the subject. Essays and journalism round off the discussion. All this, however, is just one aspect of India’s reality even if it is a very important part.
Since then, the ‘literature’ on India has grown astronomically. Hardly a day passes without a new book on the country being announced. But in this huge mass, four works stand out as models of delineating India and its realities. Two date back to the first two decades of Independence; the other two are later writings. Between them, Donald Eugene Smith’s India as a Secular State (1963), Selig S Harrison’s India: The Most Dangerous Decades (1960), Nirad Chaudhuri’s Thy Hand, Great Anarch!: India 1921-1952 (1987) and Perry Anderson’s The Indian Ideology (2012) largely succeed in framing what would once have been called ‘The Indian Question’.
If only for addressing the ‘big’ questions about India— its future, its past, its mistakes, its possibilities—the abovementioned authors come close to being four prophets of modern India.
All four bring unique elements to their writing. Their understanding of India, as it was unfolding when they wrote, and now in hindsight, has an impressive degree of truth. Smith wrote in a comparative vein; Harrison— while being a journalist—sketched possibilities that lay in the future; Chaudhuri was one of the most careful observers of his time; and Anderson is a celebrated Marxist intellectual.
Harrison, who lived in India from 1951 to 1953, looked at India through the prism of caste and region. A large part of his work dealt with the Communist parties that were considered a potent political force then. Smith was mostly concerned with a comparative study of religion in Asia. Chaudhuri mixed contemporary observation with the country’s long-term historical trajectory. Anderson begins his work with India’s quest for freedom and ends his narrative in the present time.
How do the prognoses of these four writers square with contemporary realities? With the exception of Anderson—who merely sketched a resentful, hindsight, view of modern India—the three authors have stood the test of time. Each made predictions that largely came to pass. Largely because in a country layered with identities, ideas and regions, the line between prediction and outcome is never straight.
Consider the two axes—political and civilisational (which also encompasses religion)—on which their analyses rest. Harrison’s fear of turbulence due to the conflict between nationalist and regionalising tendencies, which he so accurately predicted, did not reach a level where the unity of India would be threatened. But his predictions about the emergence of regional elites and the accentuation of caste politics were prescient. At that early date— 1960—none of the events that convulsed India later were on the horizon. The full fury of caste- based politics in the Hindi heartland lay three decades in the future. The early storms to which he was witness— events in Andhra Pradesh and linguistic separatism of the Dravidian party—faded away in due course. Harrison went off course on two points: the danger of these developments leaving the Constitution in a disturbed state and his fear of different languages creating intellectual and political centres in each state capital, alluding to the danger of separatism. That did not happen: the former due to the underappreciated Constitutional genius of the founders and the latter due to the acute intellectual impoverishment of most regional elites. After 100 amendments, a botched attempt at rewriting it via a dubious amendment (the 42nd amendment) and a virtual judicial veto (via the Basic Features doctrine), the Constitution has retained its core intact. Viewed thus, Harrison’s missteps, if they can even be called that, are minor blemishes in what was a far-sighted look at India. India’s size and the scale of its problems can overwhelm even the most acute observer. In the first decade after Independence, they appeared formidable.
If Harrison, an astute but warm observer of India, expressed what were genuine fears of that age, Anderson—a first rate intellectual and one of the greatest essayists of our time—has little warmth and scantier appreciation for what India has achieved. His register of India is largely negative. If he has something positive to say about democracy in India, it is negated by his assertion that the cost of democracy was so low that it did not matter. In other works, he is more impressed by another tropical country with a far patchier record of democracy: Brazil. His harsh words about the use of force in quelling secessionist groups in Nagaland, Punjab and Jammu & Kashmir are in sharp contrast with his near silence on the record of India’s neighbours. Pakistan barely registers on his horizon, and China—probably the most durable and continuous example of absolutism in history with a bloodier and much more brutal record of suppression— hardly merits a rebuke. In India, with its terrible heat, Anderson’s politics overtakes his intellect.
What about the two authors who looked at India in civilisational terms? Here again, the pairing is one of opposites. If in the case of Harrison and Anderson the opposing attitudes are based, respectively, on warmth and disdain, Chaudhuri and Smith display an equally sharp contrast, that of deep historical pessimism and equally intense civilisational optimism.
Chaudhuri opens his story of India in the last week of August 1947 with the rioting that gripped India. His narrative of the looting of Muslim shops in Connaught Place and the murderous mayhem that ravaged the capital for a fortnight remains among the most vivid descriptions of those events on record. But his was not mere journalese. As with much else of his writing, it was informed by the deeper currents of Indian history. He compared the events of 1947 with a no less vicious riot that struck almost the same part of Delhi in 1729. Any historian would balk at such a comparison. But Chaudhuri, one of the finest and truthful observers of India, could do so for the simple reason that he was truthful. To any modern observer, the comparison between an ineffective Jawaharlal Nehru waiving his useless stick at rioters in Connaught Place on 7 September 1947 and the inability of Qamar-ud- din Khan, prime minister of the inept Mughal ruler Muhammad Shah, would be unfair. But that is precisely the rub of the matter: history is not about fairness or any other moral judgement. For Chaudhuri, India and Hindu civilisation are tired relics that after repeated cycles of conquest and colonialism, spanning a millennium, have no vitality left in them. What was seen in Delhi in 1947 was one of the periodic furies that gripped Hindus who were incorrigibly militaristic and quarrelsome by nature.
In contrast with Chaudhuri, Smith, a scholar who studied comparative religion, considered the metaphysical basis of Hinduism—its denial of history’s relevance, its quest to overcome the repeated cycles of rebirth and death, and the belief in multiple ways of reaching religious truth—as exceptionally suitable material for secularism in India. His comparison of India with Pakistan and Burma— both favouring state religions— remains historically relevant. For all the current talk about the loss of ‘the idea of India’, a return to Smith’s writing is not only refreshing but also reassuring.
The contradictory pulls and pressures of running a uniquely complex country are nowhere more evident than in the country’s foundational document. If one looks at the political axis, the Indian Constitution is perhaps unique. Largely borrowed from various other such documents across the globe, it allows for a great degree of decentralisation in normal times. In an emergency, however, its centralising drive is matched only in authoritarian states. In spite of many troubling political episodes, it has retained an admirable balance. When it comes to religion, the balance is even more careful: the Bill of Rights gives wide amplitude to religious freedom almost at the cost of uniform citizenship. Parts of the chapter on Directive Principles— which, among other things, prescribes a uniform civil code—remain a dead letter. The Indian Judiciary—the most powerful judicial force on earth, as Anderson calls it—can only plead with the Government to give effect to these provisions. So far, to no avail.
The four boundaries sketched by these writers—political and civilisational, the past and the future—capture the Indian reality to a significant extent. What they don’t include is the human element that gave shape to modern India, and this is essential for the story to be rounded.
Every country has its myths of origin and those about its founding heroes. Constitutional democracies hold the writers of their foundational documents in such high regard that at times the exercise borders on the devotional. In the US, it is heresy to question the weaknesses of James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. So it is with India, if in a weaker fashion. If BR Ambedkar is remembered as a Dalit icon today, he is barely remembered as the author of some of the most centralising features of the Constitution. The whole complex of Articles (notably 355 and 356) that allow the Union Government to take over the reins of state governments were inserted in spite of bitter opposition to them by liberals like HN Kunzru and others in the Constituent Assembly. In fact, the forerunner of these provisions, the draft Article 277, was strengthened as an outcome of the close cooperation between two unlikely colleagues: Ambedkar and Vallabhbhai Patel. There are other heroes who are barely remembered. The great service that N Gopalaswami Ayyangar rendered India when he ‘tightened’ Article 370—detailing special provisions on J&K— in the teeth of opposition from the strongman of that state, Sheikh Abdullah, is a forgotten chapter of India’s Constitutional history. Did these first Indians view themselves as a Harijan (the word Dalit had not been coined then), a Bania and a Brahmin? It would be a travesty to imagine them as so today, since they themselves did not. In these matters, if there is always a gap between myth and reality, the truth is closer to the latter. India has much to introspect on its many mistakes, but far more to celebrate about its singular achievement: democracy.