Open Essay

India Before Itself

Madhav Khosla is the inaugural BR Ambedkar Academic Fellow at Columbia Law School
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India’s ancient and medieval past may be rich in experiences and personalities but its challenges belong very much to the modern world

IT IS ‘ABSURD’, Jawaharlal Nehru acknowledged, ‘to think of India or any country as a kind of anthropomorphic entity’. And yet, he couldn’t resist feeling ‘that a country with a long cultural background and a common outlook on life develops a spirit that is peculiar to it and that is impressed on all its children, however much they may differ among themselves’. A key figure during India’s freedom struggle and the nation’s first Prime Minister Nehru’s hope in The Discovery of India (1946)—in which these observations appear—was to capture a shared experience that Indians might be able to call their own. It was the kind of effort that nationalism demanded; a response to the orientalist indulgence of colonial accounts of the past. As a work of history, The Discovery of India was impoverished. Wrinkles were ironed out, tensions were minimised, and the past morphed seamlessly into the present. But as an act of nation-building, as a show of intellectual imagination, it was extraordinary. Nehru’s alternate past provided the vision of a possible future and revealed the impermanence of India’s subjection to foreign rule. Nehru’s ambitions were very much of their time, but the theme he touched upon has fascinated and troubled Indians for long: how might we make sense of the overwhelming set of experiences that constitute the territory now largely covered by the modern Indian nation-state?

Political theorist and intellectual historian Sunil Khilnani hazards an answer to this question in his book Incarnations: India in Fifty Lives (Allen Lane, Rs 999, Pages: 636). ‘India’s history,’ Khilnani suggests, ‘is a curiously unpeopled place’. While over a billion people take shelter under its roof, the Indian journey has scarcely been seen through human lives. Amidst the energy exhausted on demystifying Indian politics and society, the chosen individuals who have defined a laboratory of ancient and modern experimentation have faded into the basement of public memory. Incarnations hopes to bring them back to life. India might be many things to a great many people, but it is impossible to define any nation, Khilnani reminds us, without a sense of the people who have made it what it is.

To tell a story that traverses the ancient and modern worlds through merely 50 lives is almost to invite disappointment, and it is a measure of Khilnani’s skill that the list he populates is both catholic and thoughtful. In Incarnations, India begins on a spiritual note with the Buddha in 5 BCE and ends with the capitalist energy of the 20th-century industrialist Dhirubhai Ambani. In the two millennia between them, we are introduced to rulers like Akbar and Shivaji, thinkers like Rammohun Roy and Iqbal, and artists like Nainsukh and MF Husain. Though often predictable, the roll-call also contains its share of surprises. Consider, for instance, the inclusion of Nehru’s companion and sometime defence minister VK Krishna Menon. Mercurial, stubborn, and brilliant, a man routinely overwhelmed by himself, his importance at the time was indisputable. His place as one of the 50 most significant figures in Indian history is a more open question but it is certainly a thought-provoking one.

Jawaharlal Nehru believed that to deny the peculiarity of the Indian endeavour, to see it simply as a nation that emerged from the past, was to deny the true character of its problems and its promise

The entries in Incarnations might best be characterised as short biographical sketches. This is an underdeveloped genre in India, and Khilnani’s book is in many ways the first of its kind. The art of the short biography is, however, as old as Plutarch, and has in recent years been advanced in various ways. Bertrand Russell’s The History of Western Philosophy stands out as exemplifying one approach. Russell’s principal aim was to recover philosophers from their philosophy. By placing them in political and social contexts, he offered us both the source of their thought and the immediate nature of its impact. The book made the philosopher human: he was no longer an abstract concept. Russell’s coverage was both astounding—ranging from the Pre-Socratics to the American Pragmatists—and intellectually ambitious, for it located a shared form of human inquiry across this entire period. Few books have matched its scale and vision, but several have been equally enjoyable. Take Personal Impressions by Isaiah Berlin, a delightful study of some 20th-century political actors, intellectuals, and writers. Personal Impressions is considerably less serious and unifying than The History of Western Philosophy, but part of its charm is Berlin’s self-indulgence. There is no attempt to resist suppositions, no effort to reach beyond the realm of portraiture.

Incarnations is distinct from each of these works. It is both less scholarly and less intimate, and a more suitable point of comparison is Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts. Like Incarnations, Cultural Amnesia moves freely between political, social, and cultural figures, though it is largely limited to the 20th-century. James’ book was four decades in the making and is widely regarded as a classic. It sought to recover a tradition of Western humanism that James feared was fast evaporating. He saw humanism ‘as a particularized but unconfined concern with all the high-quality products of the creative impulse, which could be distinguished from the destructive one by its propensity to increase the variety of the created world rather than reduce it’. James was concerned that the 20th century, having perfected the art of oppression, had also let creation go fallow— or worse, devolve into materialism. These concerns defined the essays he crafted. Anna Akhmatova’s portrait was framed around the life she was unable to lead; Sigmund Freud’s, around the life he ought to have escaped.

Incarnations, in contrast, is far less burdened by the details of history. Because its characters do not belong to a single trade or time period, they share little in common. This leaves the project somewhat unmoored, notwithstanding Khilnani’s—admirable, and partially successful—hope of capturing India’s ‘radical experiments with self-definition’. The past is, for Khilnani, ‘an arena of ferocious contest, its dead heroes continually springing back to life and dispatched to the frontlines of equally ferocious contemporary cultural and political battles’. It is important to remind ourselves of these struggles, Khilnani argues, at a time when ‘some in India seek to transform the ferment of ideas over what India is and should be into a singular religious concoction’—a not so veiled reference to India’s Hindu nationalist ruling party. Simply put, the past is a reminder of the possibility of what it means to strive for pluralism.

Each entry in Incarnations contains some basic life details, provides a sense of the context, and gives an indication of the person’s lasting significance. Lives and debates are born and reborn across centuries. The Buddha—and his stress on equality— is, for example, embraced by the Emperor Ashoka around the time of Christ and then, in the middle of the 20th century, by the constitutional thinker BR Ambedkar. Although the selected characters are, of course, grand figures, Incarnations is no collection of superheroes. Khilnani is able to describe their lives with minimal flashiness—there are no tricks here, no magic potion whose consumption made the difference. The men and women we encounter are hardworking, passionate, lucky—and, above all, human. This is visible, for instance, in how rarely the figures stand by themselves. Nainsukh’s innovations in miniature art were made possible by the confident patronage of the royal Balwant Singh, Menon’s professional erraticism was sanctioned by Nehru’s forbearance, Srinivasa Ramanujan’s mathematical breakthroughs were enabled by the faith of his Cambridge mentor GH Hardy, and the vulnerabilities of the controversial Prime Minister Indira Gandhi grew terrible because they were exploited by her son Sanjay. However remarkable each of these figures might have been, they were all incomplete by themselves.

In the early essays that cover the pre-modern period, Khilnani is keen to exhibit the contemporary significance of his chosen few. In the entry on the first century political thinker Kautilya, say, we learn about the rediscovery of his realist text the Arthashastra in the early 20th century and the impact of its publication, the similarities between Kautiliya’s vision of the state and our own, and the repackaging of his work to satisfy present appetites. Understandable as this effort is, one wishes that Khilnani had engaged more deeply with such lives on their own terms. To make Kautilya come alive in his own time, for example, more might have been said about the Arthashastra’s content and context, from its structure involving prose and verse and cross-referencing to debates on whether its descriptions are accurate historical examples or imagined states.

When we come to the 19th and 20th centuries, however, Khilnani is on sturdier ground. Not only does he give the impression of knowing some of these figures personally, it is as if he knows how it were to be them. This is no trivial art, and is only made possible by a gentle mix of historical understanding and moral psychology. The essay on Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, provides a fine illustration. It would be easy to portray Jinnah as either a victim of a failed political compromise or a determined, malevolent actor. On one account, he gestured at the partition of British India to secure more power in a united country only to unleash passions that couldn’t be controlled. A contrasting perspective would see Jinnah as a master strategist, his career consumed by few principles and an insatiable desire to etch his name into history. Khilnani rightly recognises that ‘[n]o one around the table was blameless for partition, but that the subject was on the table at all was down to Jinnah’. Yet he reduces the man to neither his circumstances nor his politics.

Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s tragedy lay in an intransigent attachment to an older mode of politics

Through fragments of Jinnah’s life—from his early, brilliant political and legal career, to his irrelevance in the face of Gandhi’s imagination, to his eventual leadership of India’s Muslim population— we are taught neither to admire nor demonise the man but instead to see him as someone who took the issue of political representation seriously. Jinnah’s brilliance lay in posing a question that many were resistant to even recognise. His tragedy lay in an intransigent attachment to an older mode of politics. By demanding a solution within the paradigm of group power-sharing arrangements, he refused to countenance the possibility that politics could be performed on different terms.

With a similar capacity for understanding, the essay on Amrita Sher-Gil describes a fiercely gifted painter struggling to be herself. The artistic influences in her life, the details of her upbringing and romantic encounters, the gossip and drama thought to surround her existence are all subordinated to unpacking what it might have felt like to paint with internal clarity, to be exposed to the finest talents in Western art and subsequently come to appreciate the marvel of Indian traditions, to fight for health and wealth, and to carry the burden of talent without the comfort of stability. In essays such as these, Khilnani depicts figures who are trying as they can to comprehend the world they inhabit. Incarnations reveals this to be a curiosity he shares.

KHILNANI, WHO SERVES as a faculty member and director of the India Institute at King’s College London, spent his early years examining the French intellectual left. He studied the decades following World War II, when the disharmony between thought and action in France seemed stark as ever. This theme became the subject of his first book, Arguing Revolution: The Intellectual Left in Postwar France, a text which navigated the relationship between ideas and politics. By illuminating this connection, Khilnani demonstrated how ideas could come to acquire a worldly existence of their own. Not surprisingly, the same facility was on display when Khilnani shifted his gaze and turned to India. As the 20th century drew to a close, the Indian republic was about to turn fifty. Yet surprisingly little had been said— much less understood—about India’s post-colonial career, and when Khilnani published The Idea of India in 1997 it almost instantly became the standard reference for this period. In addition to being neatly organised and gorgeously written, it made two significant contributions.

The first was methodological. Indian history at the time—and to a lesser but still considerable extent today—had rejected the bigger picture. Intellectual movements like the subaltern studies school were creative and bold. They were unafraid to dig deep, to reimagine the subtle and silent forces which enable change. To focus on major themes and actors was seen as an invitation to be elite and inaccurate; it was an act of privilege. But this microscopic vision came at a cost. The larger questions were ignored, and there was no attempt to take stock of the entirety of the Indian experience. Where were the accounts that could engage with and respond to the defining themes that had occupied previous centuries? Where was the effort to step back and hazard a big thesis on the nation and its people? To ask the larger questions required its own form of courage, carrying as it did a far greater burden of being right.

Khilnani’s contemporary concerns and his historical examples are fair. But the connection between both is a fragile one

The Idea of India flew many miles above the ground, and unabashedly so. The story of politics was told through major actors, with an overwhelming emphasis on Jawaharlal Nehru’s role in conceptualising and cementing Indian democracy. The course of economic change was expressed through debates on the role of private enterprise, and varying visions of how India might battle poverty. A lively chapter on cities had more than simply an aesthetic sensibility. In its descriptions of buildings and plans, Khilnani wove a tale of urbanisation. Struggles between communities and regions, between religions and classes, were reframed to ask how republican values are managed and mangled in diverse societies. Khilnani unveiled the journey of India through a discrete set of ideas, constantly at work and invariably under challenge.

The second major contribution of The Idea of India was Khilnani’s argument. Simply put, he advanced the bold and controversial claim that ‘India’ was a construction of the state. The modern Indian nation-state, Khilnani suggested, was not a natural entity. Its creation marked a singular moment in global history—a moment in which universal adult suffrage was institutionalised in the absence of wealth, literacy, and social homogeneity. Democracy, in the sociological accounts presented by John Stuart Mill and Alexis de Tocqueville, was never meant to exist under such conditions. Yet India had become a democracy despite itself and had, five decades on, resisted the fate suffered by so many other post-colonial nations by maintaining its political form. The republic that came into being in 1950 was not the consequence of any ancient inheritance. There was no legacy to be recovered; no past to be reworked; no prior skills that could be adapted to new conditions. India’s predicament—of how to enable and work democracy under a particular set of conditions—was a uniquely modern one, and it was one for which the modern world offered no precedent.

Taking this argument seriously meant having a fresh understanding of the achievements and challenges in Indian political and social life. It meant appreciating, for instance, that the persistence of caste was not a consequence of premodern temptations but of modern politics. Democracy had not only given new energy to old problems; it had given them new meaning. To speak loosely of caste as an ancient practice, to present narratives of its survival across centuries, was a form of intellectual laziness. To do so was a way to deny how democratic life creates identities, how it shapes and reshapes them, and how it lends them significance in ways that share little similarity to the past. As Khilnani put it, ‘[i] n a fundamental sense, India does not merely ‘have’ politics but is actually constituted by politics … It is through politics that Indians are entering the contemporary world.’

The retelling of the Indian experience did more than merely clarify India’s own conditions. It showed why India—a country whose tryst with democracy has still, surprisingly enough, to receive due attention globally—mattered. The major concerns that defined contemporary democratic theory—the relationship between political power and economic wealth, the connection between diversity and individual liberty, and so on—had all by and large been framed in the West. But it was in India where they were tested at an unprecedented scale. No debate on freedom in our time could be answered without coming to terms with the character of the Indian experiment. Khilnani saw this before most did. Indeed, he ended his book by predicting that the ‘future of Western political theory will be decided outside the West. And in deciding that future, the experience of India will loom large.’

Like The Idea of India, Incarnations has a feel for large themes as well as individual lives. Khilnani is able to insert biographical details into broader storylines. He gestures at how personal acts feed into grand narratives, delicately revealing how a life comes to have historical meaning. But unlike The Idea of India, Incarnations is in search of a strong thesis. Insofar as an argument does exist, it is one that coexists uncomfortably with the central message of The Idea of India. In assembling his cast of characters for Incarnations, Khilnani sought to explore ‘the light old lives might shed on urgent issues of the present’. This was his primary criterion for inclusion. As a result, Khilnani suggests, ‘nearly all of the lives in this book illuminate, in some way or another, pressing contemporary questions’. Indeed, Khilnani ever so often reveals the present life of a past debate, encouraging the reader to draw inspiration from an earlier age.

There is no doubt that Indian intellectual traditions need recovery, and Khilnani’s work has been crucial to that effort. One fears, however, that Khilnani’s more practical ambition to clarify contemporary problems by remembering the wisdom and pragmatism of India’s past generations is, in some sense, unresponsive to the question at hand. Take, for example, the case of religious toleration, an issue that surfaces frequently in Incarnations. Highlighting Ashoka’s outlook on religious acceptance, reminding ourselves of Hinduism’s capacity for pluralism even while recognising Adi Shankara’s effort at giving it an architectonic character, staying sensitive to the ‘secular and historical truths’ depicted in Rajaraja’s temples, recalling Kabir’s irreverence and dissent, revealing the Islamic architectural influences on the Hindu Vijayanagara Empire, acknowledging Akbar’s questioning of faith—these are, of course, valid and important historical efforts. And it is also true that the struggle for civil liberties in India generally—and religious freedom in particular—is a real one. These are tense times for the world’s largest democracy, even if liberalism has been alien to Indian politics for some decades now. Khilnani’s contemporary concerns and his historical examples are fair. But the connection between both matters is a fragile one. India may have had countless examples of admirable religious practices in prior times. One may accept this and still recognise that the present challenge arises out of the logic of democratic life and must be answered within the rules offered by that life. To put the point crudely, it is not helpful to speak of religious toleration across centuries when toleration properly understood is neither an ancient nor medieval idea. On occasion, Khilnani is accepting of this fact. When it comes to caste, for example, his essay on Ambedkar nicely captures the role of modern politics. But his overall suggestion—even if it is only gently posited—that there is something old about India’s current questions, and that the answers to such questions might well also be old ones, is a kind of category mistake.

The point I raise is not a new one. It finds expression in numerous arguments among Indian intellectual historians, and this is unlikely to be the last word on how the past and present connect. It is a point that might be underlined by a word on the 50 lives chosen. It may seem a little out of place to end on such a note. Any book such as Incarnations is bound to suffer from the problem of under- inclusion. While there is a worthy debate to be had about the influence of particular figures, one ought not to make too much of someone’s absence. Locating the one person who isn’t there can hardly help us problematise the figures that exist. Yet, the omission of one select individual—Nehru—is simply too glaring to ignore. Nehru does make a guest appearance now and again in Incarnations, at moments where his relationship with other figures is noted. This makes the omission at once skillful and conspicuous. In Incarnations, Khilnani offers us no reason for the absence of the man who occupied centre stage in The Idea of India. But Nehru’s omission is an opportunity to recall his stance.

The animating theme of Incarnations is that figures and ideas appear and reappear in Indian history; our debates and challenges are incarnations of earlier ones, they find new dialects to express an older script. Yet, for all his historical learning and interest, few might have denied this proposition more passionately than Nehru. The reason he regarded the modern Indian project to be so special—and so important—is because he saw it as a site for an entirely new human experiment. As The Idea of India showed, Nehru’s signature contribution to the 20th century was to make democracy possible in a place where its ingredients had forgotten to arrive. He believed that to deny the peculiarity of the Indian endeavour, to see it simply as a nation that emerged from the past, was to deny the true character of its problems and its promise. Incarnations regards a previous time as our own. Nehru would have enjoyed the history but resisted the lesson.

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