‘Nimbus of Empire, Charisma of Nation’

A response to Perry Anderson

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IN the 5 July issue of the London Review of Books, Perry Anderson takes it upon himself to enlighten us with the truth about Indian nationalism.1 His remarkable essay, more than 11,500 words in length, glows with every attribute his readers have come to associate with his prose over five decades: a sweeping argument forcefully made, apparent familiarity with the subject, beautiful turns of phrase, polemical bite, and a commitment to left ideology that has long made him a known name in the Marxism-friendly groves of Indian academe. Not many in that audience could possibly be persuaded, alas, by his strange diatribe against India’s independence movement, that somehow ends up sounding like an only half-embarrassed defence of British imperialism and its century of colonial rule on the Indian subcontinent. Even worse, the piece, titled ‘Gandhi Centre Stage’, literally dies trying to push the Mahatma right off the stage of history. Unfortunately for Anderson, Gandhi proves impossible to dislodge from his position as the protagonist of India’s struggle for freedom, as at least three generations of left-wing critics, in India and abroad, have discovered by now to their consternation.


The essay is long – clearly Anderson wishes to pronounce his judgment on India and on Gandhi only after demonstrating his firm grasp of the lineaments of a complicated story unfolding between 1857 and 1947 – but nevertheless, a summary may be attempted. Beginning with quotes from Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohandas Gandhi, both masterful authors of voluminous amounts of prose in the English language, Anderson goes on to cite the current Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh (an Oxford-educated economist), followed by every major Indian intellectual to have produced a deeply critical but essentially affirmative overview of modern India in the past two decades – Meghnad Desai, Amartya Sen, Sunil Khilnani, Ramachandra Guha and Pratap Bhanu Mehta. All are shown singing paeans to ‘the idea of India’ (incidentally, a phrase coined by Rabindranath Tagore) and praising the movements that liberated India from the British Empire to produce, somewhat unexpectedly, an egalitarian, secular and democratic nation-state. They are wrong to be feeling good about India, says Anderson, and here’s why. First of all, ‘India’ never existed before Europeans made it up; it was the British who in fact stitched together the territories that would eventually be torn in two to yield the nations of India and Pakistan. Second, British power in India was never defeated by the anti-colonial will of the masses under the leadership of the Indian National Congress. Rather, a combination of enlightened British largesse and random external forces – the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the two World Wars, the Japanese conquest of East and Southeast Asia in the 1940s, before Hiroshima – are responsible for the lamentable sunset that was never supposed to happen.

India emerged from a precolonial darkness into the light of empire after the defeat of rebel forces in 1857 and the establishment of Crown Raj in 1858. From the 1880s till 1919, the first stirrings of Indian nationalism were essentially the outcome of the Anglophone education of native elites, and nothing much happened apart from compromise and collaboration between the principals – Indian princes and landlords as well as western-educated lawyers and journalists, and the British administration. In the upper echelons of Indian society, Hindus became dominant; Muslims were progressively marginalized by both Hindus and the British, because the last great polity before the British arrived had been the Mughal state, that flourished from the early 16th century to the early 18th century, and was comprehensively stamped out in the rout of 1857. In 1919, however, Gandhi entered national politics, and he turned everything upside down, until eventually India won its freedom in August 1947, after three tumultuous decades that are badly misunderstood by Indians, even today, even if they happen to be the most important Indian intellectuals of our own time. For in truth, Gandhi was not the ‘Great Soul’ he appeared to be; instead, he was irrational, obtuse, eccentric, cunning, repeatedly defeated, and in the end redeemed only by his fortuitous assassination in January 1948. Had Nathuram Godse not done the Mahatma the favour of shooting him dead, his life would have ended in either ignominy or obscurity, like so many other leaders of the so-called Third World.

The bulk of Anderson’s essay is a litany of Gandhi’s flaws, faults, fads, failures and falsehoods. It is difficult to summarize, because what Anderson does is analyze every major mass mobilization, political campaign, and action within the Congress party, as well as every cornerstone of Gandhi’s political philosophy, as proof that either he was wrong or he was out-manoeuvred by the British – in other words, he did not get a single thing right. How Gandhi pulled off such a huge con-job as to be anointed the Father of the Indian Nation, then, was to possess but three outstanding qualities: the capacity to fund-raise and organize a nationalist party; an indifference to personal power; and exceptional communication skills. Otherwise, what were supposedly his core political ideas – swaraj (self-rule), swadeshi (economic self-reliance), satyagraha (truthful resistance), ahimsa (non-violence), and brahmacharya (sexual self-control) – had no efficacy whatsoever. Moreover, he terminally alienated key segments of the Indian population that ought to have been, but never became, equal partners first in the national movement and later in the nation itself: the Muslims (led by Jinnah), the Untouchables (led by Ambedkar), and the labouring classes (peasants and workers). He made an enemy of Subhash Chandra Bose, a brilliant left-wing Congressman who was driven into the arms of Hitler and Axis Japan, so frustrated did he become with Gandhi’s indecipherable shenanigans between the late 1930s and the mid-1940s. If India got independence, in Anderson’s narrative, it was really despite and not because of Gandhi:

‘The British had taken over the subcontinent with such relative ease because it was politically and socially so tangled and fractured, but in imposing a common infrastructural, juridical and cultural grid on it, they unified it as an administrative and ideological reality for the first time in its history. The idea of India was theirs. But once it took hold as a bureaucratic norm, subjects could turn it against rulers, and the nimbus of empire dissolve into the charisma of nation.’

In this unfortunate dissolution, Mahatma Gandhi had no hand.


Anderson’s critique recapitulates a number of problems in the historiography of modern India that have more or less stabilized as perennial themes over the past three decades, ever since Ranajit Guha’s seminal works, Dominance without Hegemony: History and Power in Colonial India (1977) and Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India (1983). The possibly derivative character of Indian modernity, the belatedness of the arrival of capitalism in India, the continuities between the colonial and the post-colonial state in India, the conundrum of caste society before, during and after colonialism, the eccentricity of Gandhi as a man and a leader, the dissonance between the effort to build a non-violent independence movement and the reality of a terribly violent Partition, the incomplete nature of India’s revolutionary transition from feudal colony to democratic nation-state, the gap between the historical experiences of subaltern and elite classes: historians of India and particularly those on the left have made and debated these claims with exemplary thoroughness.

Oddly, Anderson makes no reference to Ranajit Guha, Partha Chatterjee, Shahid Amin, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Gyan Prakash, or others of the Subaltern Studies school, whose books might have helped strengthen his argument on a number of fronts. Nor does he do justice to the Indians he quotes in his opening salvo, all of whom (with the exception of the Prime Minister, naturally!), while being occasionally appreciative of the achievements of Indian nationalism, have also, in the large body of their work both as scholars and as public intellectuals, provided detailed analyses, criticisms, correctives and models that have laid the foundation of a new history of political thought in modern India. ‘All countries have fond images of themselves,’ Anderson writes, ‘and big countries, inevitably, have bigger heads than others.’ This sounds plausible, though it doesn’t explain the monumental imperialist hubris of a certain very small island off the west coast of Europe – an hubris and an arrogance undiminished by the passage of time and the disappearance of its erstwhile power into what Tagore memorably called ‘the ever-falling darkness of history.’

The charge that India never existed before India existed is all well and good, but neither did any other modern nation as a nation. The pre-national life of all nations is equally a matter of selective memory and constructed traditions, as it is of historical fact and collective agency. India is in no way unique among the nations of the world – democracies and non-democracies, large nations and little – in its efforts to endow itself with a suitable past. While nobody imagines that the territorial boundaries, cartographic shape or demographic breakup of the Republic of India can be traced back with a high degree of precision to the Buddhist Mauryans, the Hindu Guptas or the Muslim Mughals (the three largest subcontinental states to precede British India between roughly 300 BCE and 1800 ACE), a cluster of specific cultural and geographical features have consistently identified what is today South Asia (including India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) as a distinctive part of the world to others who came to it from elsewhere, whether they were Greek, Persian, Chinese, Arab, Central Asian or European. It is a fact that this identity does not depend on a political form, racial characteristics, ethnicity, religion or language – all of which form the bases of modern nations, as Anderson frčre has memorably shown – that makes skeptics of the idea of India so dreadfully uncomfortable. India constitutes itself in the present as an entity with what Nehru called ‘a rich and immemorial past’ by relying on a complex repertoire of symbolic resources, where literary genres, practices of aesthetics, and cultures of knowledge count as much if not more than histories of power as the ground of the modern nation-state.

This is why Anderson’s attempt to set the record straight falls flat: bureaucracies, militaries and technologies, whether precolonial or colonial, have never, in India’s self-imagination, been the sturdy sinews of the body politic. What are the ‘realities’, he asks polemically, corresponding to the ‘overlapping consensus’ of India’s historically misguided if verbally gifted intellectuals? Yes, the British, for their selfish reasons, gave to India what is now the world’s third-largest army, a modern legal-juridical system, a huge infrastructure of railways, and English-language education, but who ever said that the idea of India is the sum of these banal parts? The resilience of the idea of India comes from the emphasis on the idea as such, to the detriment of any actual iteration of it in historical time. The more capacious this idea, the more apparently contradictory and incommensurate realties it can accommodate with breathtaking simultaneity, and the harder it becomes to refute by holding up this or that moment in history as the definitive ancestor of the present. East of the Indus, south of the Himalaya, girded by the oceans, the heterogenous peoples of this subcontinent long valued their poems over their kings, their theories over their buildings, and their liberation over their prosperity (though they had plenty of the latter until the colonial state bled them dry through an extractive despotism that was nowhere near as benign as Anderson would have us believe. No wonder some of the strongest opposition to the Raj came from within Britain, where at least some liberals and some socialists could not bear beyond a point the hypocritical formula of slavery in the colonies paying for freedom at home).


But the bulk of Anderson’s ire is not directed at India – his real bugbear is Gandhi. Again, Gandhi-bashing is a hallowed tradition in India’s intellectual left, a form of compulsory hazing without which entry to higher circles of the academy has been all but barred in recent memory. Even Joseph Lelyveld – no Indian, no leftist – an American biographer of Gandhi and former editor of The New York Times – whose extraordinary book Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and his Struggle with India (Knopf 2011) met with shall we say the opposite of a deafening silence – even so unlikely and so successful a chronicler of Gandhi’s moral struggles and political battles found his subject ‘a tough nut to crack’.2 Lelyveld’s response to a life that he clearly found baffling, if not often incomprehensible, was to keep Gandhi at the centre of his inquiry with a sharper focus, a more intense scrutiny, until by the end of the book he seems to make a kind of cathartic, epiphanic sense of his protagonist. Gandhi has thus rewarded the bemused curiosity, the reluctant fascination, the sworn skepticism of not only all of the major Subaltern Studies historians one after the other, but also of a number of other important scholars whose books on Gandhi are appearing this year or the next: Faisal Devji, Uday S. Mehta, Tridip Suhrud, Akeel Bilgrami and Ajay Skaria, to name just a few. Ramachandra Guha is working on a two-part biography of Gandhi, that promises to pay equal attention to his life in South Africa and India.

Gandhi’s achievements in the field of politics were many, and one might even agree with Anderson’s assessment of his strengths – building up the Congress, mobilizing millions – as well as of his setbacks – civil disobedience, Khilafat, Quit India, etc. It’s indisputable that he was the single most significant person among the hundreds of men and women who constituted the leadership of India’s founding generations; it’s also both easy and natural to debate the exact role he played in each of many political campaigns at the height of the anti-colonial movement between say 1920 and 1947, and to come up with a range of marks, from failing to first-class, on his historical report-card. But if Gandhi’s career as the hero, whether tragic or otherwise, of the history of modern India reveals one thing, it is this: we do not revere or revile him because of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, the Dandi Salt March or his last stand in the searing wilderness of Noakhali. In fact why Mahatma Gandhi is inextricably conjoined now, with the idea of India, is because this man came onto the historical stage when India’s traditions of political thought and political practice were both in a state of severe, life-threatening crisis, and he resolved this crisis of tradition; he made a singular and irreversible epistemological breakthrough, and launched India into its political futurity. What Gandhi gave us was a clear direction out of the thickets of colonized self-forgetting, self-doubt and self-hate, towards a horizon that he called swaraj: rule of the self, rule over the self, a marriage of the selfhood and the sovereignty of a once and future India.

In a sense, Anderson’s misappraisal of the Mahatma begins with his misreading of Hind Swaraj, a short tract written in 1909 in which Gandhi articulated the outlines of his highly original philosophy with the brevity, density, and force of aphorism. Here he laid out a set of criticisms of modern Western civilization – what he called in Gujarati kudharo, ‘the wrong way’ or ‘the evil stream’ – by attacking in a most concrete fashion its institutions, ideologies and practices. Although India was either coerced during colonial rule into adopting, or adopted voluntarily in its postcolonial freedom, many of the features of western modernity that Gandhi criticized, the fact is that Gandhi’s moral authority, as well as his abiding stature as the one who showed the right way (sudharo) and whose guidance could make us better both as individuals and as a society, all emanate from that one little book. However poorly India might follow Gandhi, during his lifetime or long after, he invariably acts as our moral compass. We know that he tells us where we ought to be going, howsoever hard the way, howsoever far the destination from the one we are presently headed towards. The very arguments in Hind Swaraj that Anderson finds either hilarious or hypocritical – ‘its battery of archaisms’, in Anderson’s colorful words – actually constitute a vision of an alternative modernity, or in Gandhi’s words, ‘true civilization’. If we place his visage on our currency notes it is out of respect, not irony.

Anderson similarly misunderstands other aspects of Gandhi – his opinions and teachings as a believing Hindu, his relationship with B.R. Ambedkar, the leader of the untouchables, his relationship with Subhash Chandra Bose, the founder of the Indian National Army, and his repeated allusion to the idea of Ramrajya, an ethical polity. In doing so he reveals his lack of familiarity with both the prevalent structure of values and norms that underlies postcolonial Indian society, as well as with the intricacies of the historical record surrounding Gandhi and his peers, associates, adversaries and followers. Gandhi’s ‘Hinduism’ was so inventive and eclectic as to make him enemy number one to Hindu nationalists – one of whom killed him, soon after Partition. No two imaginary entities could be morally as opposed to one another as Savarkar’s Hindu Rashtra and Gandhi’s Ramrajya. The Mahatma drew freely and unapologetically from Jain, Vaishnav, Pranami, and Christian religious systems; studied and admired the Russian Anarchists and the American Transcendentalists; and really lived his life, as I argue in my forthcoming book, according to the Bhagavad Gita. This ancient Sanskrit poem about war and duty was also, in my understanding, the paradoxical source of Gandhi’s central concern, namely ahimsa (non-violence).

With Ambedkar, the dialectic of ‘self-purification’ and ‘self-respect’ between the two men made their respective – and dissimilar – critiques of the caste system and especially of untouchability more mutually engaged and productive, ultimately, than adversarial, as the late D.R. Nagaraj showed in his brilliant interpretation of the Gandhi-Ambedkar dynamic.3 And as for Bose, while he may well have suffered setbacks on account of politics internal to the Congress party in which Gandhi too played a somewhat murky part, his turn to Hitler and Mussolini, and his hopes that Nazi Germany and its Asian ally Japan would help India defeat the British, betray a means-and-ends problem so gigantic that no amount of posthumous justification can quite redeem Bose’s political judgment. The Indian Communist left – always strong in Bengal, Bose’s country – has never been able to claim ‘Netaji’ (Respected Leader) as the answer to Gandhi, so embarrassing were the lengths to which he went in order to find a way apart from Nehru’s liberalism, Jinnah’s separatism, or Gandhi’s pacifism to achieve independence. Anderson’s best efforts cannot lift Bose from the oblivion into which posterity has cast him, whatever Gandhi’s machinations at the level of the party to which he and Bose both belonged.

What Gandhi sought for India was swaraj – self-rule – a composite goal in which self and sovereignty, swa and raj, have equal weight, and the exact nature of the ligature between them is of the utmost importance. The relevance of this quest is as great today as it was in Gandhi’s lifetime: it is the perpetually-renewed, ever-close, always-distant horizon of our political landscape. It is because Gandhi recognized the obduracy, the tyranny, the recalcitrance of the self, that he was able to lead India towards the recapture of its sovereignty, its freedom from foreign rule. But because it was Gandhi who saw that the real mastery had to be achieved over the self, not over the other, that he is the one who occupies centre-stage in India’s history, while the peevish colossus of British power becomes a mere backdrop against which the spiritual and political adventures of the half-naked fakir unfold, to our unremitting attention, our unflagging fascination. Now that he has read his way through an admirable bibliography and aired his many irritations and objections, Anderson too, needs to consider once again the main moral protagonist of the political life of what is, like it or not, the world’s largest democracy.


The essay then, the first of three to appear in the LRB, has three major flaws. One, it conflates the idea of India with the postcolonial Indian nation-state, a fundamental error, because (as I argue at length in my book) the principal founders of the Indian republic were all idiosyncratic in their modernism: Gandhi was averse to bureaucratic and militaristic forms of state power; Tagore was opposed to nations and nationalism; Nehru was a committed secularist who yet valued tradition as the anchor of modernity; and Ambedkar rejected Hinduism and caste society outright. The India they so painstakingly imagined into existence was not reducible to a liberal constitutional state; nor do contemporary votaries of this political form hesitate to recognize and criticize the numerous shortfalls in Indian democracy, even as they understandably celebrate the achievement of a democratic order in one of the world’s most diverse and hierarchical cultures.

Second, Anderson fails utterly to get Gandhi – but this is nothing new. Gandhi was a mystery wrapped inside an enigma to the British administration right from his early days of political activism in South Africa, and continued to puzzle, annoy and stupefy both his compatriots and the foreign power – to say nothing of his biographers! – throughout his life and long after, into the present. Why Anderson shows no awareness whatsoever of a robust tradition of critiquing Gandhi that has flourished among Indian leftists from the 1940s, it is difficult to say. He tries to compare Gandhi to other prominent nationalists, to religious figures, to Anglo-phone intellectuals, and to revolutionary leaders around the world in the same period from the late 19th to the mid-20th centuries, but of course these comparisons prove futile. This only means that one has to work harder to understand Gandhi’s undeniable achievements, not repeat for the nth time a long list of his – equally undeniable –peculiarities.

Third, to say that Gandhi did wrong on numerous occasions is one thing. But the claim that India’s anti-colonial and anti-imperialist movements, including the apex national movement led by the Congress (which treated Gandhi as it leader for the three decades culminating in independence), were in no way responsible for the decolonization and democratization of India is patently indefensible. Gandhi may have called off this or that mobilization at its height, withdrawn from active politics when he ought to have stayed in the game, backed a worse rather than a better candidate for some position of influence within the party, or made any number of miscalculations, missteps and bad judgment calls in the course of his 50 year-long career in political life. But what counted was that he, together with his associates in the Congress, in the ashrams, and throughout the public at large, created and sustained a climate of ideas (swadeshi, swaraj, ahimsa), inculcated habits of personal and political praxis (charkha or weaving by hand, khadi or making hand-spun, hand-woven cloth, satyagraha or non-violent resistance), and made the quest for self and sovereignty so paramount, that getting India its independence became the principal political project of the age. And with the freedom of India the path was cleared for the decolonization of huge swathes of Asia, Africa and Latin America. Yes, surely the Second World War hastened the dissolution of the British Empire, but neither Allies nor Axis powers came to rescue India: in the end, she liberated herself.

Ananya Vajpeyi


* Ananya Vajpeyi’s book, Righteous Republic: The Political Foundations of Modern India is published in September 2012 by Harvard University Press in the US, UK and India. She is currently a visiting fellow at Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi. Email: