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EMPIRE LITE: Nation-Building in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan by Michael Ignatieff. Vintage, Random House, London, 2003.

THE phrase ‘Empire Lite’ has already found a place in the daily vocabulary of political and diplomatic dialogue. It is rich in meanings and in ambiguities. Its origins lie in the intervention by the international community in the 1990s in failed states like Bosnia and Kosovo to rebuild national institutions. As the intervention was seen as temporary and a prelude to handing over power to a local administration, it was often referred to as ‘nation-building lite’.

Increasingly the US has taken the lead in proposing such interventions – and in making them possible through the vast superiority of American military power. The scope and geographical range have also greatly extended from south east Europe to Afghanistan and Iraq where US led forces have rapidly and with overwhelming military superiority overthrown regimes and put in their place US backed administrations. The neo-conservative lobby in the US would push the frontiers of this intervention further – Iran? the Arabian Peninsula? Korea? rogue states in Africa? – in what would be a reordering of the global political map justified by US security interests and reasons of global stability.

This assertion of US hegemony is the ‘Empire Lite’ of Michael Ignatieff’s title. It is ‘lite’ because it does not carry with it the colonial ambitions and long term administrative responsibilities of earlier empires. It is conceived of as a temporary step to allow time for national and democratic institutions to be put in place. It is ‘lite’ as well, because in Ignatieff’s graphic phrase, this empire is acquired not through legions but through ‘a light footprint on the ground with lethal coverage from the air.’

In US eyes – and this is where the ambiguities and hypocrisies begin – it is not empire at all. On the contrary, the central tenet of US foreign policy has been to oppose imperialism (whether Soviet or European) and stand firmly with the angels in bringing ‘freedom’, ‘liberty’ and ‘self-determination’. But as Ignatieff rightly insists, this intervention is imperial in that like all imperial missions it is determined through perceptions of US national security interests. In a negative sense, it is also ‘lite’ because the US too often hopes to intervene on the cheap and has neither planned nor is prepared for the long haul that is required if indeed national and democratic institutions are to replace the failed or dictatorial regimes that have been overthrown.

The surprise of the book is that it marks the conversion – at least partially – of Ignatieff to the thesis of the neo-conservatives in the US. A noted liberal intellectual, author of a biography of Isaiah Berlin (the philosopher who devoted his life to exploring and defining the concept of liberty), Ignatieff’s natural sympathies are liberal and in favour of the values of humanitarianism, self-determination and democracy. But he argues here, in a short but brilliant survey of the post Cold War global landscape, that in failed states like Bosnia, Kosovo or Afghanistan, neither democracy nor humanitarian assistance are conceivable unless preceded by outside intervention. As Europe has effectively demilitarised itself since the Cold War, the only power with the technology and reach to intervene is the US. ‘The essential paradox of nation-building is that temporary imperialism – empire lite – has become the necessary condition for democracy in countries torn apart by civil war.’

In thus supporting ‘empire lite’, Ignatieff bemoans that the nationalist movements that grew on the break-up of the European or Soviet empires too often failed to deliver on their promises. ‘For every nationalist struggle that succeeds,’ in giving its people self-determination and dignity, he writes, ‘there are more that only deliver their people up to a self-immolating slaughter, terror, enforced partition and failure.’ He thus sees the return of Empire as ‘an attempted solution to the crisis of state order that has followed two botched decolonisations: the Soviet exit from Europe and the European exit from Asia and Africa.’

This book was written before the US invasion of Iraq – though in the shadow of the beginning of the war. Iraq was, and is, a far bigger test of ‘Empire Lite’ and the Pax Americana than any previous operation. It was bigger militarily and logistically. It was fought in the heart of the Middle East and thus at the heart of the world’s economic and strategic concerns.

Unlike Bosnia, Kosovo or Afghanistan – the three interventions that Ignatieff reports on in this book – where the US had the international community on its side, in Iraq the Americans and British went in pretty much on their own. Much of world public opinion was unconvinced by the case for going to war – and in retrospect with justification. This was not a war about weapons of mass destruction which increasingly do not seem to have provided a necessary reason for invading Iraq. The war was about US determination to radically shift the balance of power in the Middle East in line with US perceptions of its strategic interests and security. It was thus a classic imperial war fought with the aim of furthering US objectives in the related areas of the war against terror, oil and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Restoring democratic institutions in Iraq was at the forefront of the propaganda campaign but low on the Pentagon’s agenda.

Many European nations (France, Germany and Russia in particular) as well as other major countries including India and China, were apprehensive about this unilateral display of US power and of the precedent it could set. Their hostility found voice in the unexpected split in the Security Council and in the western alliance. It left a world divided between those who thought US policy could best be influenced through the framework of support for the administration and those insistent that all intervention should be through multilateral institutions and have the backing of the UN.

In the lead-up to the war, there was never much doubt about the military outcome. Iraq, with its ageing equipment and demoralised armed forces, had no chance against the American juggernaut. But the speed of the US military victory and the display of air and battlefield technology was indeed awesome. The lesson the US wanted to deliver to the rest of the world was that it had a reach around the globe that others could only challenge at the risk of being marginalized. The US made its point. This does not mean it can intervene wherever it wants and whenever. This would further risk stretching its overstretched forces. But it does mean that for a long time yet it has the military superiority to choose and to knock out an enemy target across the world in a way that no empire has done before.

What has caught the US off balance – and quietly warmed the hearts of its critics – is the mess that it has made of the post-war situation in Iraq. If this was to be a war about ‘liberating Iraq’ – the daily banner headline of Fox TV in the US during the war – and rebuilding Iraqi institutions, the US and the British showed themselves to be remarkably unprepared. The US now faces a low level insurgency in the country. It is not clear as yet, as Douglas Hurd, the former UK Foreign Secretary, has recently written, whether this is the tail end of the Saddam regime or the beginning of a new intifada. But in establishing security in Iraq, in getting its public services back on line, and in handing over to an Iraqi administration, the US desperately needs allies to give this the imprint of the international community.

The war in Iraq has thus shown the strengths and weaknesses of the Pax Americana in a way that was not clear when Ignatieff wrote this book. The US has clearly the military strength and technology to act unilaterally. But the difficulties of administering Iraq over the last few months – the casualties and the rising fears that this could be another Vietnam – will make any future administration hesitant of doing so before it has the backing of the international community. In any case, the gung-ho chauvinism of the Bush administration is not in the historical mainstream of US foreign policy. As the US public counts the cost, becomes more sceptical about the justification for the war, and more nervous about the long term consequences, US presidents will be more hesitant again at projecting US power so arrogantly. One risk is that public opinion in the US could swing in the opposite direction and carry the US back to an old fashioned isolationism. The rest of the world would then find itself – as it has on occasions in the past – dragging on US coat-tails to keep it firmly rooted in multilateral diplomacy.

In these circumstances, how do countries like India respond to US calls to send forces to Iraq? In India’s case, one of the strange reversals of the post Cold War world is how close it has brought it to the US. From eyeing each other with suspicion and hostility since India’s independence, the US and India have developed low profile but strong mutual ties. They share a lot of security concerns – the containment of China, terrorism, militant Islam, the management of nuclear weapons. In contrast to the Middle East and China, India has shown itself a surprisingly stable democracy – and thus an attractive long term partner to the US. Indians are now a powerful lobby in Washington – reflecting a host of economic interests between the two countries and a growing community of Indians who happily live in both. All this suggests that it is only a matter of time and of finding the right formulas and context, before Indian troops are on the ground in Iraq. No Indian government wants to wrong-foot itself domestically by risking the safety of its troops in a cause not understood at home and which does not as yet have the cover of UN support. But in the longer run, India, like Europe, has little to gain from challenging US supremacy – and some strong reasons for working with it. It will resolve the dilemma with much the same mixture of rhetoric and compromise that Europe uses in managing its relations with the US.

David Housego


LIVING WITH THE POLITICS OF FLOODS: The Mystery of Flood Control by Dinesh Kumar Mishra. Peoples’ Science Institute, Dehradun, 2000.

Dinesh Mishra is arguably India’s leading flood expert. Though a civil engineer by training, he forcefully argues from the other side of the fence. For him floods are not a technical problem but centrally a political issue. The Mystery of Flood Control does much to buttress his growing stature as an important campaigner for the Barh Mukti Abhiyan and as a leading dissenter against embankment construction. It is a book written with much verve, wit and passion and easily engages the uninitiated on the technical complexities and hard politics that currently underpin India’s fatal policies towards annual river flooding.

He starts by walking the reader through geological time and paints a broad canvas about river morphology and the hydraulic peculiarities of the South Asian subcontinent. Rivers are great drainage channels with different regimes of circulation that link mountains, flood-plains and wetlands with each other. In a sense, rivers are arteries carrying the life-blood which nourishes the varied environments of the subcontinent. Following this expansive view, Mishra goes on to embellish geography with historical accounts of how early civilizations in India related with and depended on their river systems. Annual natural floods not only deposited silt but through their flushing action drained and revived soils.

Mishra quotes amply from folklore and other sources of the intricate connectedness between rural prosperity and the annual flooding. With the coming of colonial rule, however, the era of embankment construction began and the once dependent relationship between people and their rivers turned into one of antagonism and struggle. The colonial drive for revenue collection lay at the heart of this new strategy and by the end of their rule several swathes of once fertile and flourishing lands had been turned into malarial swamps and flood vulnerable landscapes.

Embankments, Mishra argues, fundamentally undermine natural drainage by interfering with its flow circuits. While it prevents river water from overflowing onto the land, it also thereby prevents water from draining back into the river channel from the adjoining flood plains. In effect the embankments traps water on either side. Second, by preventing the rivers from spreading their waters, they end up unsettling the rivers’ carefully balanced regime of erosion and deposition, causing them to ultimately become more ferocious and also to degrade their channels rapidly. In sum, embankments either end up making the rivers more volatile or transfer the fury of the flood to non-embanked areas.

In the post-colonial or rather independence phase, however, flood control policies, despite their proven danger, have been intensified rather than reversed. The iron triangle of the contractor-bureaucrat-politician have found in the annual flooding a great possibility for lining their pockets. Profit and greed have driven and continue to dominate current policies on flood control. Added to which has been the introduction of large dam technologies on the scientifically spurious claim that reservoirs can hold back flood waters. Mishra comprehensively dismisses the claim as bad science and flawed engineering. Both the Damodar Valley Corporation dams and the much celebrated Hirakud dam have often been the cause of unnatural floods because of the sudden release of waters from their reservoirs, ironically enough to save the dams from being overwhelmed by high precipitation.

While Mishra does a rigorous job of dismissing embankments and large dams as techniques for flood control, the real strength of the book lies in the case it makes for a viable alternative. Simply put, Mishra is arguing for the restoration of natural flooding. He wants obstacles to be cleared, the ecological integrity of the rivers restored and a dependent relationship between people and their rivers revived. He wants to ‘perfect a science into art’ – a set of multiple strategies in which flood waters are tapped for their silt, allowed to flush drainage and are reconnected as ecological rhythms to the flood plains. Villages are to be rethought to live with natural flooding by adopting various flood-friendly cropping schedules and crop varieties, coping through new housing designs and other such measures. But is this too tall a claim?

Can one accuse Mishra of being great with analysis but simply too unrealistic as far as the solutions are concerned? Oddly enough, a reading of The Mystery of Flood Control gives precisely the opposite impression. There is no question of an onward march as far as embankment construction and large dams are concerned. Politically, flood control is anti-democratic and breeds too much violence and corruption. Most significantly, the ecological price will be too high and future generations will perhaps have to contend with an insurmountable hydraulic disaster. Mishra’s reasoning is both prescient and timely. It’s a voice that cannot be ignored, both for the people and the rivers in this subcontinent.

Rohan D’Souza


THE ESSENTIAL WRITINGS OF B.R. AMBEDKAR edited by Valerian Rodrigues. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2002.

IF one has ever felt humiliated in any context, one may better understand the pain that most dalits in our society have to bear only because they are born in a caste deemed ‘untouchable’. Many a voice of resistance has been born from similar depths of anguish and anger. As one reads through this book, it is clear that from within its folds speaks the most compelling voice of them all, that of Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar. These essays, an excellent example of writing with power, impress with the force of scholarship of this towering intellectual who passed away less than fifty years ago.

The writings, organized and edited by Valerian Rodrigues, are an attempt ‘to highlight the best of his (Ambedkar’s) writings, reflecting the depth and range of his life’s works, his intellectual incisiveness, and his realistic assessment of the social and political issues that he sought to address’ (p. v). All the essays selected in this volume are from the collection of sixteen volumes of Ambedkar’s writings and speeches in the legislatures and other official platforms, under the title Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches (BAWS), published by the Government of Maharashtra. They were all written in English; therefore, the text is as it was in the original.

The volume includes writings that span forty years (1917-1956). These years were important years in the life of a nation striving for freedom. How to achieve national freedom with liberty and justice for all were questions that occupied many, especially Ambedkar. As the events unfolded in the decades preceding independence, Ambedkar emerged as a national leader and representative of an important constituency: the depressed castes and classes of India. The collection in this volume reflects Ambedkar’s deep involvement with the important issues of his time, such as caste and untouchability; questions of identity, ideology and religion; constitutional rights and democracy; nationalism; and economics and law. Ambedkar’s intellectual as well as practical engagements with these issues advanced the task that others before him, like Mahatma Jotirao Phule and Narayana Guru Swami, had begun.

Despite his exceptional erudition, Ambedkar had to swim against the tide in many ways. He was battling social currents, which had so far dominated not only the political scene at the national level but were also pervasive at the local level. The dominant castes and classes had maintained local power at the village level through centuries of economic exploitation and social oppression of a whole people – the shudras (who were nevertheless savarna since they were part of the chaturvarna) and the avarna (those who were outside the chaturvarna) (p. 105). Besides, the situation of this underclass of ‘broken people’ had been made invisible. Ambedkar was questioning all this, not in a weak or hesitant manner, but with the full power of learning.

In Ambedkar’s life, education was associated with the first experiences of untouchability. Among little Bhim’s early encounters at school were instances when he was not allowed to drink water from the same pitcher as other children, was made to sit separately, and was stoned for quenching his thirst from a well which belonged to the upper castes. These early experiences led him to question why he was being treated differently. His sister’s answer, that this was because they were untouchables, did not satisfy him. ‘But why? What makes us different?’ were questions that were to haunt Ambedkar and become the basis of his life’s quest.

The first chapter of the book, ‘The road to Goregaon’, describes an unforgettable encounter with untouchability that Ambedkar had when he was nine. He and his brother, only a little older, were travelling to Goregaon to meet their father. In spite of having money and being well dressed, their journey proved to be full of ordeals when others, whom they had met en route, discovered that they were Mahar children. They realised that their presence was considered polluting not only to human beings but also animals and inanimate objects such as the bullock cart, which the upper-caste driver maintained would be defiled if he allowed them to travel in it. During the same journey, taking pity on them since they were children, they were advised to hide their identity (which they did) and pretend to be Muslims in order to get some water from the station-master who was a Hindu. ‘This incident,’ writes Ambedkar, ‘gave me a shock such as I never received before, and it made me think about untouchability which, before this incident happened, was with me a matter of course as it is with many touchables as well as the untouchables’ (pp. 52 and 53).

Scholarship, for Ambedkar, became a form of resistance. Bhim, the student who used to wake at two in the morning so that he could study in the quiet of the night while the rest of the household in their one room tenement in Parel slept, was to attain higher education in citadels of learning like Columbia University and London School of Economics. His intelligence and hard working disposition were evident even in school, winning him the love and affection of his teachers, especially a brahmin teacher who decided to change his pupil’s surname from Ambadvekar to his own surname, Ambedkar.

It was in New York in 1913, as a 22 year-old postgraduate, that Ambedkar had the first taste of social equality and freedom. Subsequently, he fought for these ideals by performing many different roles in public life, such as Professor of Political Economy and Law, lawyer, parliamentarian, administrator, economist, activist, writer, and the architect of the Indian Constitution and India’s major legal structures. By mastering the written word, Ambedkar not only entered but excelled in a world traditionally barred to the ‘untouchables’. He was able to effectively break the brahminical monopoly of knowledge and demonstrate that ‘true learning and knowledge is different from what brahminism upheld’ (p. 4). Ambedkar often argued that emancipation of the depressed classes was possible only through their own initiative, and that education was a crucial tool for their liberation.

Questions related to caste, untouchability, identity and religion understandably became the focus of much of Ambedkar’s work. Two-thirds of the book retains this focus, covering a wide range of topics in articles such as ‘Who were the Shudras’, ‘Origin of Untouchability’, ‘Annihilation of Caste’, ‘From Millions to Fractions’, ‘Gandhism’, ‘Reply to the Mahatama’, ‘Krishna and his Gita’, ‘The Buddha and His Predecessors’, ‘Buddha or Karl Marx’, ‘Conversion’, and ‘The Hindu Code Bill’.

Ambedkar identified endogamy as the fundamental feature of caste which he described as ‘the soul of caste’. The prohibition of interdining with a person from another caste or a non-Hindu, or adopting an occupation other than the occupation of one’s caste, were two other important features of caste that he called ‘the body of caste’ (p. 101). Caste, an organized and involuntary grouping, acquired its individuality, fixity and continuity through its common name. Each caste was separate and distinct, but the mutual relations between these castes constituted the caste system. These separate castes, however, were not aligned horizontally but vertically, thereby the built-in feature of hierarchy and graded inequality in the caste system.

Ambedkar rejected the caste system on the ground that it institutionalised inequality, whereby human lives were pre-ordained according to the varna of each person’s birth. In his famous essay ‘Annihilation of Caste’, he offers many forceful arguments against the caste system. For instance, countering an oft-quoted argument that the caste system is another name for division of labour, Ambedkar points out that: ‘It is also a division of labourers.... into water-tight compartments. .... it is an hierarchy in which the division of labourers are graded one above the other ... it is not a division based on choice’ (pp. 263 and 264). The system was particularly unfair to the shudras and to women. While the pre-ordained occupation of the shudras was to be in the service of the other three varnas, both shudras and women were denied a right to knowledge, which remained the privilege of the brahmins. Besides, the caste system had destroyed social spirit and ethics. Instead, Ambedkar outlines the ideal of a society based on liberty, equality, and fraternity (p. 276). In the caste system, hierarchy is based on birth, negating each of these ideals.

Ambedkar’s in-depth examination of the caste system led him to reject Hinduism because he felt that the caste system was an integral part of Hinduism. The system of caste and untouchability, Ambedkar maintained, was the basis of Hindu religion and society. As long as religious sanction remained, all efforts to root out untouchability from the Indian soil would fail, as evidenced by the fate of efforts of many a Mahatma such as Buddha and Ramanuja. By the mid-1930s, Ambedkar had realised that reforming Hinduism was almost impossible and proclaimed at a conference of ‘untouchables’ in Yeola: ‘I am born a Hindu. I couldn’t help it. But I solemnly assure you that I shall not die a Hindu.’

In the subsequent two decades he continued to study Hinduism and search for a more humane religion. This search led him to the Buddha. In Buddha, he found a kindred spirit and teacher who too had rejected the Vedic religion on similar grounds. Ambedkar was also attracted to Buddha for his rational outlook and non-violent philosophy. This he often contrasted with the obscurantism of the Hindu shastras. Even the Bhagavad Gita, he felt, fell into that trap: ‘The philosophic defence offered by the Bhagavad Gita of the Kshatriya’s duty to kill is to say the least puerile. To say that killing is no killing because what is killed is the body and not the soul is an unheard of defence of murder... If Krishna were to appear as a lawyer acting for a client who has been tried for murder and pleaded the defence set out by him in the Bhagavad Gita, there is not the slightest doubt that he would be sent to the lunatic asylum’ (pp. 193 and 197).

In the essay ‘Away from the Hindus’ (titled ‘Conversion’ in the book), Ambedkar makes a forceful case for conversion. How could the ‘untouchables’ remain in the Hindu fold, he asked, when even the very name given to them evoked sentiments contrary to the spirit of humanism? Addressing a conference of the Mahar community in 1936, he said that a religion that did not recognize the untouchables as human beings, and compelled the ignorant to stay ignorant and the poor to stay poor, was not a religion but a visitation. ‘How can the Untouchables stay in Hinduism?’, he asked, when ‘Untouchability is the lowest depth to which the degradation of a human being can be carried... That Hinduism is inconsistent with the self-respect and honour of the Untouchables is the strongest ground which justifies the conversion of the Untouchables to another and nobler faith’ (pp. 228 and 229).

He maintained that only if Hindu society became a casteless society was there hope for the ‘untouchables’ within Hinduism. ‘A people and their religion must be judged by social standards based on social ethics... My quarrel with Hindus and Hinduism is not about the imperfections of their social conduct. It is much more fundamental. It is about their ideals... The Hindus in the words of Mathew Arnold are "wandering between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born" ’ (pp. 316, 317, and 318). Ambedkar was convinced that conversion could solve the problem of untouchability and vowed to devote the rest of his life to the revival and spread of Buddhism in India. Less than two months before his death in 1956, he embraced Buddhism. Following his example, around three lakh ‘untouchables’ embraced Buddhism by echoing Buddham Saranam Gacchami after him.

Ambedkar’s understanding on caste and untouchability brought him in to conflict with the Congress and its leaders, especially Gandhi. Ambedkar increasingly saw Congress as an orthodox party interested in maintaining the interests of the upper castes and classes of India. Brahminism and Gandhism became Ambedkar’s bete noires. He had long and outspoken debates with Gandhi on these issues. His ‘Reply to the Mahatama’, a rejoinder to Gandhi’s response to his essay ‘Annihilation of Caste’, is particularly enlightening. In this essay, he argues against Gandhi’s support of the varna system and advocacy that everybody should follow their ancestral calling. In the chapter on Gandhism, Ambedkar critiques certain central tenets of the Gandhian ideology, particularly in terms of its bearings on the ‘untouchables’.

Ambedkar made fundamental contributions to the intellectual and institutional foundations of modern India. Roughly one-third of the book is devoted to essays on economics, nationalism, democracy, constitutionalism and law. Ambedkar attempted to outline constitutional democracy from the perspective of the depressed classes. He advocated universal adult franchise irrespective of education. In his essay ‘Caste, Class and Democracy’, he warns that a constitutional form of government by itself did not guarantee a democratic government, in the sense of a government by the people and for the people. By the force of historical circumstances, each country had a governing class and servile classes. For self-government and democracy to become real, the governing class would have to lose its power to capture the authority to govern. And for this to happen, especially in countries where they (ruling classes) are deeply entrenched, the servile classes would need additional safeguards besides adult suffrage.

In India, the brahmins constituted the governing class and the shudras and untouchables the servile classes (80 per cent of the total). Reminding the reader that ‘the record of the Brahmins as law-givers for the Shudras, for the Untouchables, and for women is the blackest as compared with the record of the intellectual classes in other parts of the world’ (p. 147), Ambedkar asserted that, ‘What the servile classes expect from India after independence is a complete destruction of Brahminism as a philosophy of life and social order. The want and poverty which has been their lot is nothing to them as compared to the insult and indignity which they have to bear as a result of the vicious social order. Not bread, but honour is what they want... Can anyone who realizes what the outlook, tradition and social philosophy of the governing class in India is, believe that under the Congress regime, a sovereign and independent India will be different from the India we have today?’ (pp. 144 and 148).

As one safeguard, Ambedkar demanded a separate electorate for the depressed classes in order to ensure a system of representation that would be just to the dalits. The Communal Award granting a separate electorate to the ‘untouchables’ was announced in 1932. Gandhi started a fast unto death against the award, on the plea that the electorate should not be divided on caste lines. Given the moral pressure, Ambedkar signed the Poona Pact, an agreement for a joint electorate with reservations for the Depressed Classes. The Poona Pact was largely ineffectual for he felt that ‘the joint electorate was a mechanism for selecting a member of the Depressed Classes who was acceptable to caste Hindus rather than someone who could authentically represent the interests of the "Untouchables". ...The communal award was intended to free the Untouchables from the thraldom of the Hindus. The Poona Pact is designed to place them under the domination of the Hindus’ (p. 12). Ambedkar had rightly observed: ‘On 26th January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality.’

Social democracy in India is still a dream. The system of untouchability persists, in varying degrees, in developed as well as developing states of India. Millions of dalits still do not have the most basic of all human rights – to be regarded as human at par with others. Most of the indices of untouchability discussed in the book (pp. 95-98) still apply, especially in rural areas, where discrimination persists in many different forms: restricted access to temples and public tanks, pollution by touch especially of drinking water sources, segregated seating arrangements at school, among others. In some areas, until recently, dalit brides were required to spend the first night after marriage with the local upper caste landlord; others were not allowed to wear clean clothes, footwear or ornaments or even consume food items such as ghee. Protests on these issues today are reminiscent of those led by Ambedkar such as the famous satyagraha to draw water from the Chowdar tank in Mahad in 1927 or the movement to enter the Kalaram temple in Nasik in 1930 (pp. 9 and 11).

Even though discrimination is less intense than before in some respects, these are not really signs ‘portending the collapse of the caste system, but of its adjustment to modern conditions. ...untouchability in its notional sense persists even where untouchability in its literal sense has ceased to obtain’ (pp. 97 and 98). For what has not changed significantly, especially in rural areas, is the mental attitude and inward feelings that motivate outward actions, feelings of ‘defilement, odium, aversion and contempt’ (p. 96).

This attitude is pervasive in the civil society, Hindu religious organizations, and even officials responsible for governance. As was evident recently in Gujarat, it was possible for Hindu organizations to include dalits in their communal pogrom, while on an everyday level continuing to treat them as outside the fold. The questions of identity and conversion continue to plague dalit existence. Dalits are still not seen as equal citizens in the eyes of the upholders of law. The poor, especially dalit poor, are more often than not treated with disdain. They are generally regarded and even spoken of sometimes as gandai log (unclean persons) not deserving respect or dignity. Even when concessions are made to them, they are usually granted as a favour rather than as a right.

To some extent, dalits to have contributed to the non-realization of the social equality dream. Graded inequality inherent in the caste system also pervades ‘untouchable’ castes. Indeed, the most pernicious aspect of the caste system is that the oppressed castes themselves often end up internalising caste norms or even practising untouchability towards those who are at the bottom of the caste hierarchy. The psychological paradox of a victim turning perpetrator of similar pain baffles in many contexts. This aspect of the caste system is also neglected in Ambedkar’s writings, at least those that are included in the present collection.

While Ambedkar’s selected writings in this book are both engaging and instructive, some questions remain. For instance, even though Ambedkar has taken up the cause of the shudras admirably in his writings, women, the other victims of the shastras, have been mentioned only in passing. In his essays, Ambedkar has chosen to confine the term ‘depressed classes’ to untouchables, and one wonders what he thought of other marginalized sections of Indian society such as adivasis. Ambedkar mentions them, but rarely. His reference to them on one occasion in the book causes worry, his understanding reminiscent of colonial notions of the tribes as ‘criminals’ and ‘savages’ needing to be civilized (pp. 270 and 271). One wonders why Ambedkar did not actively consider them as allies in the struggle for social equality, because dalits and adivasis taken together (16.5 per cent and 8 per cent respectively) constitute nearly a quarter of the Indian population and in actual numbers are over 250 million today.

An important omission in the book is the absence of a subject index, which leads to time wastage when trying to locate discussions of particular themes of interest. The book, however, has achieved high editorial standards and contains many useful sections including an insightful introduction and an extensive bibliography in which Ambedkar’s writings have been re-grouped in terms of modes of presentation, as well as classified thematically. The bibliography also includes secondary writings. In addition, a detailed chronology of events has been provided.

It is when you come across a scholar like Ambedkar that the social value of scholarship becomes clear. He was an example par excellence of an intellectual with a social conscience. His strong values, sharp intellect, ability to go to the root of the matter, the coherence of his argument, his clear and incisive style of writing are all instructive and inspiring. In fact, so powerful are the writings, so brilliant the text, that the reader remains riveted till the end.

These writings are an indispensable tool for all those opposed to the caste system and its continuing injustices. Ambedkar helps us to look at old questions in new ways. The essays in this book are enlightening for anyone interested in the fundamental issues of our time: democracy, freedom, equality, and social ethics. As this book makes clear, Ambedkar was not just a dalit leader, as he tends to be remembered today, but one of the finest intellectuals of the 20th century.

Bela Bhatia


INDEPENDENCE AND PARTITION: The Erosion of Colonial Power in India by Sucheta Mahajan. Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2000.

THE book under review is the first in the Sage Series in Modern Indian History which intends to ‘bring together the growing volume of historical studies that share a broad common historiographic focus.’

In her introduction Sucheta Mahajan critiques the dominant schools of thought and scholarship influenced by western thinking, particularly their tendency of ‘disparaging nationalism’. She sees her work primarily as an intervention on ‘the side of secularism’ in the present contest between secular and communal forces and the effort by scholars to divest ‘many of the ideals, values, principles cherished and upheld by the Indian people, especially nationalism, secularism and pluralism’ of their ‘intrinsic worth’.

The book is divided into five parts. Part I – Background, consisting of two chapters ‘Nationalist Activity and Government Response at the End of the War’ and ‘Planning of the Political Offer, the Simla Conference and its Breakdown’, establish the time frame and the political background to her work. Part II – Imperialism and Nationalism in three chapters deals with – ‘Congress Strategy and Popular Nationalist Activity’, ‘Popular Movements: Myth and Reality’, and ‘Imperial Hegemony and Colonial Policy’ respectively. It focuses on the immediate post World War II years, the new trends manifest in the political scenario, the INA trials, RIN strike, popular upsurges in the winter of 1945-46 and the worker, peasant and tribal movements of the period.

Part III – Imperialism, Nationalism and Communalism consisting of three chapters, ‘Unite and Quit’, ‘Decide on a Date and Quit’ and ‘Divide and Quit’ – traces the British policy from early 1946 to August 1947 in the context of the different options of ‘withdrawal’ considered by the British, the political manoeuvres by the League and the response from the Congress. Part IV – Nationalism and Communalism has three chapters, ‘Congress and Muslim League’s Demand for Pakistan’, ‘Two Faces of Hindu Communalism: Majority Reaction, Minority Fears’ and ‘Hindu Communal Pressure on the Congress’. It examines the conditions that provided the ultimate fillip and consolidated the division and the Congress response to the manifold pressures both from within and outside. Part V – Denouement, consisting of two chapters, ‘Congress Accepts Partition’ and ‘Why Gandhi Accepted the Decision to Partition India’, investigates the factors surrounding the acceptance by Gandhi and the Congress and their larger implication. The narrative follows a thematic rather than a chronological structuring.

The book offers extensive footnotes, meticulously cited which may prove to be useful to a reader for further reference. The appendix consists of summary of replies to telegram sent on 27 February 1946 from HOMEIN, New Delhi, to all provinces on the nature of disturbances and steps taken to check the same. The bibliography is elaborate with primary sources including archival materials, institutional records, oral evidence (interviews conducted by the author and colleagues under the aegis of the ICSSR Project on History of the Indian National Congress), private papers, published primary sources and newspapers. There is also an exhaustive reference of secondary sources, books and articles. The inclusion of cartoons in each chapter by Shankar and Ahmed which had appeared in The Hindustan Times during 1945-47 holds a special appeal.

The author begins with the 1940s, a period which she considers as having an ‘alarming contemporaneity’. The diverse contestations over the ‘saga of independence and partition’ as the ‘opening acts of post-independence sequel’ and the ‘continuing struggle between secular and communal forces’ provide the rationale for her work. She argues how there has been a continuous effort at pitting forces of ‘secular nationalism against communalism’. She charts the background starting with Gandhi’s ‘constructive programme’ post his release in May 1944 which, in the absence of direct political activity, nevertheless guaranteed ‘organizational build up’ and ‘the steady accretion of nationalist strength’ by the Congress. The period also witnessed subsidiary political activity by others like the Communist Party of India, the women, kisan, labour and students bodies not driven by ‘specific group interest’ but rather exhibiting the heightened level of political activity, popular support and solidarity behind the nationalist cause.

The British anxiety to channelise the political energies from subversion to constitutional areas was evident in its seeking participation of the Congress and the League in the Executive Council. The ‘breakdown’ of the Simla Conference put an end to the efforts. The author next details the various aspects and implications of the ‘struggle-truce-struggle’ policy of the Congress and its impact on the colonial policy as well as other developments of the period that ‘signalled the turning tide.’ The author attributes the ‘popular enthusiasm’ of the time mainly to a response evoked by the Congress. The INA agitation was crucial at this period. Nehru’s early involvement with the championing of the INA cause and the varied involvement of the Congress in it later, the author claims, marked the Congress’ attitude to it and thus negates the charges of Congress jumping onto the INA bandwagon and merely using the issues as an election stunt. The geographical, social and political reach of the event was immense.

The author examines the other popular upsurges of the period around the RIN revolt, the worker, peasant and tribal movements of the period, their nature, significance and impact on the Congress’ stance and the imperialist policy and ‘compares and contrasts these upsurges with the general trend of politicization.’ She analyses the inherent limitations of each of these and negates claims about their reach and effectiveness in ‘pushing India on the brink of a revolution,’ or paving the way for achieving independence without partition. They had little impact on the colonial policy too which remained intact. It was rather the Congress’ moulding of the national sentiment, the author believes, that intensified the British unease and prompted the arrival of the Cabinet Mission to India and ‘set into motion the machinery for the transfer of power.’ Investigating the intentions of the British and its corresponding impact on their policy she next poses the question, ‘The Congress obviously wanted unity and the League division; what did the British want?’ The author discusses the various possibilities over the British ‘withdrawal’ from India and developments in the national politics surrounding it. The Simla Conference, the battle of ballot of 1946 for the central assembly and the provincial legislative assemblies are held up for review. ‘The election of 1946 marked the cleavage between the two stories of nationalism and communalism,’ the author states. She discusses at length the ‘direct action’ in Kolkata, the Noakhali and the Bihar riots to highlight this. From the British point of view the partition decision is to be seen ‘both as the first act of the drama of Commonwealth diplomacy and the closing scene of "Divide and Rule".’ Thus the author argues that they could not, therefore, be absolved of their responsibility for the decision to partition India.

Finally, the author reviews the conditions under which the Congress and Gandhi accepted partition. Partition was preferred to the ‘prospect of balkanisation.’ ‘…acceptance of Pakistan by the Congress, however unfortunate, did not amount to an acceptance of the two nation theory on which the demand for Pakistan was based. The Congress had regretfully accepted partition as unavoidable, while keeping hope alive…’ A focus on Gandhi’s actions and writings has been a thread running throughout this work. In this period, Gandhi did have a ‘different, more individualized approach than that of Congress but not counterpoised to it,’ the author proclaims.

The work, though meticulous, nevertheless foregrounds the bias of the author in vigorously rejecting any perspective that raises doubts about the intentions of the Congress in seeking independence at the cost of partition. It was always ‘unavoidable’, ‘the complex, contradictory reality of 15 August 1947,’ she argues. Though rejecting any characterization of the Congress as monolithic, there are instances when Nehru seems to represent the Congress and his voice becomes the sole representative of the party. The author categorically rejects the role of ‘popular movements’ and the involvement of forces other than the Congress, merely as ‘hitherto unpoliticised, apolitical’ forces making their presence felt in the national movement, with their ‘own limitations’. The Congress in contrast is presented as the organised, conscious national force with ‘mass support’ spearheading the national movement, determining its course and giving shape, voice and structure to it. In the analysis of nationalism, it is Congress alone that seems to be its main locus.

Sudhanya Dasgupta Mukherjee


DOWRY MURDER: The Imperial Origins of a Cultural Crime by Veena Talwar Oldenburg. Oxford University Press, New York, 2002.

THIS book is a serious attempt to trace the evolution of dowry in the context of wider processes of economic and social change which imperialism effected in the lives of the Indian people. The author outlines some of the steps taken by the colonial regime which subsequently determined and shaped the discourse on culture in its wider context. The book points to the need to attempt a history of the political uses of culture, which is itself both a historic and dynamic process. Pointing to the rare consensus on a social issue in India – that the custom of dowry has a causal relationship to prejudice and violence against women – she examines the notion and practice of dowry. It is widely recognized that till today dowry remains a crucial component of negotiations concerning marriage and thereby has a great impact on the lives of women in the South Asian region. Oldenburg pursues a compelling logic. As an exploration of the possible ways in which the imperial state engineered the genealogical transformation of a custom into a crime the book is worth reading, even as one may disagree with some of the arguments as well as the premises on which these are based.

Till women’s studies made a dent on historical analysis and contributed to a more gendered view of the subject, much of the writing on legislation in 19th century India was premised on the inherently positive nature of imperialist intervention in the social domain. Such intervention was often viewed as being synonymous with throwing the weight of the state behind forces actively working for the creation of modern, democratic social structures amongst colonized peoples. Exposure of the links between emerging forms of patriarchy and imperial ideological intervention also laid bare some crucial aspects of the new hegemonic institutions.

Oldenburg’s strength lies in the fact that she focuses on the need for a close scrutiny of the link between emerging social prejudices and the evolution of property relations in the colonial context. The study specifically outlines the trajectory of the colonial bureaucracy adamantly emphasizing the link between peasant improvidence and dowry. It succeeds in showing that the chain can be taken further back: to argue that there was a deeper connection emerging in British Punjab between female infanticide and dowry. It is the pursuit of this trail which leads Oldenburg to the subject of transformation of rights in property, particularly land.

Emphasising the need to explore the political economy of the region to understand the transformation of dowry in this period, she asserts that it is naïve to believe that women’s rights and customs would remain unchanged even as men’s rights in property were changed. Property, she argues, is not a static category and the colonial period specifically generated its own dynamics within peasant families. Under pressure of losing their lands in view of surplus extraction by the imperial state, peasants were forced to deploy women’s resources to enhance family holding and assets; these included cash and jewellery. Thus, even as land increasingly became a commodity, cash and property began to play a greater role in the composition of dowry. The result was a profound loss of women’s economic power and social worth.

Oldenburg argues that it is in this process that what was previously a ‘woman’s right’ underwent a change, leading to the corruption of a custom. Thus the safety net became a deadly noose. This was accompanied by the creation of the Indian male as a legal subject at a time when simultaneously, women were left with no security and no legal entitlements. The colonial period thus led to a masculinisation of the economy in Punjab.

It also buttressed son preference in significant measure. Oldenburg maintains that the impugning of dowry as the causal force behind gendered crimes has its roots in the collusion of the imperial state. Despite the legislative record of the imperial state: of outlawing of several customs that underscored the bias against women, there was, in the colonial period, a deepening loss of women’s social worth. ‘Cultural crimes,’ she forcefully argues, ‘were a legislated imperial artifact.’ They opened up possibilities of changing the dominant discourse on custom, tradition and law in a manner as to make imperial intervention appear to be eminently appropriate. The British thus managed to lay the blame for their policies on ‘peasant improvidence’, which in turn was seen as being ‘culturally’ induced. Thus Punjabi men, who reconfigured patriarchal values and manly ideals ever more strongly in 19th century British Punjab, emerge both as subjects as well as agents of the process of change: being meshed in an unsurprising alliance against the customary rights of women in their community even as their own rights were being curtailed.

Oldenburg’s study opens up many issues. Above all, it emphasizes the need as well as the tremendous scope for the possibility of studying the subject in a historical context, located firmly within the political economy of a region. Her own research and analysis remain largely confined to the emergence of son preference in the early years of Punjab under imperialism, even as it relies heavily on the writings of Imran Ali for West Punjab and Prem Chowdhury for the pattern of social relations in the East. At the same time, it shows how a study conducted in the context of a specific region and time frame, does not provide the basis to arrive at a more generalized understanding of the phenomenon of dowry on a pan-Indian scale. If inter-linkage between primogeniture and property can be established in the context of Punjab in a specific way, does it necessarily follow that in other parts, where the political, economic and social dynamics differed, culture evolved in similar ways? Oldenburg does not make such an assertion with regard to her study of custom in the Punjab.

The author sees her book as an attempt to understand the pattern and continuities and dysfunctions in colonial and post-colonial periods so as to lead to a more informed perspective on one of the most troubling issues in the subcontinent. In the arguments on dowry that follow thereafter, it is somehow implied that the understanding of cultural processes in Punjab offers a clue to the emergence of dowry as a crime in recent years, since it was also amongst Punjabi families that it initially showed its most horrific face.

Oldenburg refrains from clearly defining dowry. She chooses, instead, to track the course of its ‘changing perceptions and functions overtime.’ The assertion that in pre-colonial India dowry was not a problem but ‘a support for women’, remains contentious.

Nothing could be farther from the truth than the statement that dowry affects only a small percentage of families in India! Similarly, there is only partial truth in the statement that dowry was and is ‘voluntary’ and reflective of the pecuniary circumstances of the concerned families: while this may be true for a small fraction, there is enough evidence to show that all major decisions regarding the girl’s life and education are taken keeping in mind the financial costs to be incurred at the time of marriage on account of dowry, and that there is nothing ‘voluntary’ about the extortion on account of this so-called custom. Today, there is simply no basis to argue that ‘dowry constitutes a woman’s independent right to property and prestige.’ More problematic is her assertion that dowry could be called ‘one of the few indigenous, women-centred institutions’; or that in an overwhelmingly patriarchal and agrarian society’ it is also an important asset for women and offers a safety net in a virilocal setting. An idyllic image is conveyed by the statement that ‘it also serves as an index of the appreciation bestowed on a daughter in her natal village,’ since dowry is the ostensible measure of her status in her conjugal village. Nevertheless, she admits, the safety net has become a deadly noose and what we see today is a monstrous perversion of a function of the custom.

Except for the last, each of the above statements remains contentious. The same is the case with her attempt to establish, through a few case studies, that marital conflict has its roots in factors other than dowry. Based on a few months’ field work in the Saheli office, this section is the least researched in the book though it is here that the writer appears ‘deeply implicated in this as history, as one of its subjects , as a bride, as an academic and occasional activist.’ It would be nobody’s claim that today all marital conflict stems from dowry. But, the attempt in recent years to undermine the omniscience of dowry as a factor behind crimes against women – as was also the thrust of a recent court judgement – seeks to deflect from the issue. Oldenburg ignores a whole body of factual data available with the National Crime Records Bureau, legal case history, as well as women’s organizations throughout the country. Notwithstanding the veracity of her claims with regard to her own experience or that of the women she interviewed during field experience, to ignore the overarching evidence available on the increasing scale and extent of dowry-related violence and conflict leads to an incongruous situation where she ends up arguing against herself. The last chapter, which focuses on understanding dowry deaths in contemporary India, ignores altogether the link between politico-economic processes and the changing role and function of custom. Here, the analysis of the wider socio-economic processes is left by the side. This grants a sort of autonomy to cultural practice in times when the economy and the market, specifically, determine the nature of social relations.

Dowry, in recent decades, has emerged as the single-largest head for murder as well as other violent crimes committed against young, married women in India. Its spread points to the manner in which patriarchy intersects with capitalism to devalue women in contemporary India. Any attempt to underplay the enormity of this fact, no matter how well-meaning, weakens our analysis as well as the struggle against the practice.

With regard to the issue of whether and how dowry constitutes a right to property or share in inheritance, the debate in recent years has been heated and, sometimes, acrimonious. Oldenburg’s study adds to this, both by way of the substance of her argument as well as her accusations of intellectual plagiarism against a well-known spokesperson for women’s rights.

The findings of a recent survey on dowry by the All India Democratic Women’s Association, forcefully demonstrated that till very recently the patterns with regard to dowry, marriage, gift exchange and custom were extremely varied. Also, that processes of change were marked by diversity on account of caste, community, region, religion and class. Activists have continuously drawn attention to spread of the market forces and the increasing role of commerce in determining the nature and basis of social relationships and interaction in recent decades. Nonetheless, no single explanation could be offered for the pattern or process of change which is marked by both complexity and crass material pursuit. True, imperialism is at work in the emergence of the phenomenon. But the context has changed, as also the terrain. To explore the imperial origins of the crime with reference to dowry is both a significant and a relevant exercise. It cannot, however, offer a sufficient explanation for the emergence of dowry as a significant cause for crimes against women in contemporary India.

Indu Agnihotri


CROSSING THE RUBICON: The Shaping of India’s New Foreign Policy by C. Raja Mohan. Viking, Penguin Books, New Delhi, 2003.

THE author is a well-known columnist who writes regularly on foreign policy, defence and security matters. I have respect for the temples of the minds of cerebral people among whom I include C. Raja Mohan. But I find the basic thesis of his book, that India has a new foreign policy, flawed. Both the title of the book, Crossing the Rubicon and the subtitle, India’s new foreign policy, are misleading. Foreign policy and diplomacy are never frozen. They can neither be practiced nor implemented at break-neck speed, being by their very nature evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Foreign policy is what you do; diplomacy is how you do it.

Our foreign policy has evolved over the past seventy-six years. Twenty years before independence, Jawaharlal Nehru had been thinking about the foreign policy for an independent India. So in many ways, our foreign policy is an extension of our freedom movement. Indira Gandhi, in her celebrated article in the October 1972 issue of the American periodical Foreign Affairs, put it pithily:

‘India’s foreign policy is a projection of the values which we have cherished through the centuries as well as our current concerns. We are not tied to the traditional concepts of a foreign policy designed to safeguard overseas possessions, investments, the carving out to spheres of influence and the erection of a cordon sanitaire. We are not interested in exporting ideologies. Our just concern has been to prevent any erosion of our independence. Therefore, we could not be camp followers of any power, however rich or strong. We had equal interest in the maintenance and safeguard of international peace and essential condition of India’s economic, social and political developments. In the bipolar world, which existed in the immediate post-war era, Jawaharlal Nehru refused to join either bloc. He decided to remain non-aligned as a means of safeguarding our independence and contributing to the maintenance of world peace. Non-alignment implied neither non-involvement nor neutrality. It was and is an assertion of our freedom of judgement and action. We have not hesitated to express our views on any major controversy or to support just causes.’

The foreign policy of India did not begin with Jaswant Singh although C. Raja Mohan would have us believe that it did. It is a gospel for which there are few takers. Mercifully, we now have an external affairs minister who has, to some extent, reversed the excessive tilt towards Washington. To my disappointment, the author has dealt with serious, complicated foreign policy and geopolitical complexities with elegant superficiality. One looks in vain for depth. Much is made about the paradigm shift in American policy towards India and about the prime minister’s announcement on American soil that India and America are ‘natural allies’. This is an irresponsible and absurd claim. Had that been so, then Vajpayee would have sent our troops to Iraq to serve under American commanders. He did not. He could not. After 11 September 2001, the whole world was with America. After the Iraq war, even staunch western friends of Washington have become severely critical. Why? Pax Americana is not highly popular.

A one-sided view is given of the discussions and deliberations on the CTBT. It was pathetic to see the then external affairs minister peddling the line that India should sign the CTBT even after the American Senate had rejected it. How abject can one be? The Congress put a stop to that.

Nobody is questioning the line that Pokhran II brought about a change in the security scene in the Indian subcontinent. Yes. To our detriment. The author would have us believe that this has somehow given India extra military muscle. Hence the Americans are keen to engage with us on nuclear matters. The brutal truth is that Pokhran II made Pakistan into a nuclear power and gave it permanent defence parity with India. The superiority that we had for 51 years in conventional arms disappeared forever. Some gain.

The hope that Americans would, somehow, in the new circumstances look at Pakistan through the Indian eyes has been belied. Regardless of our pleading at the highest level, Washington has refused to classify Pakistan as a terrorist state. Pakistan remains a ‘stalwart ally’.

There is much confusion in and about the Non-aligned Movement. Is it relevant, now that the cold war is over? Yes, it is. How is NATO relevant? No answer. And NATO is now established in Afghanistan. Let us not confuse non-alignment with the Non-Aligned Movement. India was non-aligned from 1947 to 1961. The first NAM summit was held in Belgrade in September 1961. Not in Brioni. The NAM needs drastic and creative overhauling. Here India can be the supreme catalyst. We have the clout, the experience and the skill to do so.

The aftermath of Iraq and Afghanistan is a wake up call for the non-aligned world. A.B. Vajpayee, for once sent a not so subtle non-aligned diplomatic missile by hurriedly arranging a visit to China. He also let Yashwant Sinha meet the foreign ministers of Russia and China. Here is non-alignment for you.

All this could not have been lost on our friends in Washington. India must take the lead and engage our American colleagues in serious parleys – tell them that a unipolar world carries its own China shop with it and cannot endure for long. America must act with wisdom and strengthen the UN system and abandon unipolarity, accept if not embrace multipolarity.

This book is a combination of refined illusions and delusions. There is no second Republic emerging. And Curzon’s appearance in the book is quite amazing. He is best remembered for establishing the Archaeological Survey of India. The Chapter on Curzon is ill-conceived and takes one nowhere. Besides Curzon was an insufferable conservative lightweight, outwitted first by Kitchner in India and later by Baldwin in England.

K. Natwar Singh