The Idea of India

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Overview

The key book on India in the postnuclear era, with a new Introduction by the author.Our appreciation of the importance of India can only increase in light of the recent revelations of its nuclear capabilities. Sunil Khilnani's exciting, timely study addresses the paradoxes and ironies of this, the world's largest democracy. Throughout his penetrating, provocative work, he illuminates this fundamental issue: Can the original idea of India survive its own successes?

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A splid-and timely-book . . . Spirited, combative and insight-filled . . . Khilnani has woven a rich analysis of contemporary India and its evolution since indepence. I am inclined to agree with [him] on the robustness and staying power of the secular idea of India." —Amartya Sen, The Times Literary Supplement

"A masterful rebuttal to all cultural romantics and religious chauvinists . . . [A] splid book about definitions of the Indian nation." —Ian Buruma, The New York Review of Books

"Especially brilliant is Khilnani's attempt to understand the changing nature of India by studying its urban constructs." —Chitra Divakaruni, Los Angeles Times Book Review

Ian Buruma
A masterful rebuttal to all cultural romantics and religious chauvinists . . . [A] splendid book about definitions of the Indian nation. -- The New York Review of Books
Chitra Divakaruni
Especially brilliant is Khilnani's attempt to understand the changing nature of India by studying its urban constructs. -- Los Angeles Times Book Review
Amartya Sen
A splendid-and timely-book . . . Spirited, combative and insight-filled . . . Khilnani has woven a rich analysis of contemporary India and its evolution since independence. I am inclined to agree with [him] on the robustness and staying power of the secular idea of India. -- The Times Literary Supplement
Judith M. Brown
Khilnani writes with illuminating dexterity, wit and compassion.
The New York Times Book Review
Library Journal
Khilnani (politics, Univ. of London) offers a penetrating analysis of the spread of democracy to ever more diverse segments of the Indian body politic. Juxtaposed to this trend is the breakup of the Congress Party's hegemony and the subsequent growth of regional political parties. With the ebbing of congressional power and the elimination of its Socialist economic constraints, the Indian economy has embraced greater growth as the number of Indians living below the poverty line diminishes. Khilnani attributes much of this growth to India's cities, which emerge as paradoxical points of exclusion and economic dynamism when compared with rural India. In the process, national identity has in Khilnani's vision been subsumed by regional political focuses, urban and rural divisions, and greater religious identification. Hence, India's future will necessitate the continuance of a viable democracy sustaining the economic, cultural, and social diversity of the subcontinent. The author skillfully draws out the ironies and paradoxes of Indian history with a subtle, illuminating prose. For informed readers.John F. Riddick, Central Michigan Univ. Lib., Mt. Pleasant
Judith M. Brown
Khilnani writes with illuminating dexterity, wit and compassion.
The New York Times Book Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374525910
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 6/4/1999
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 1,358,836
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Sunil Khilnani, born in New Delhi and educated at Cambridge University, teaches politics at Birkbeck College, University of London. The author of Arguing Revolution, he is at work on a biography of Nehru (forthcoming from FSG).

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Read an Excerpt

Democracy
In politics we will be recognizing the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions?
B. K. AMBEDKAR, 1949

On 15 August 1996 the Indian tricolour was hoisted from the ramparts of Delhi's Red Fort in an annual ritual of state invented forty-nine years earlier by India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. The man who in 1996 presided over this ceremonial observance of the day India gained independence from British rule came from a world galactically removed from Nehru's. H. D. Deve Gowda had taken office a few months earlier, the first Indian prime minister to speak neither Hindi nor English. A self-proclaimed 'humble farmer's son' from the southern state of Karnataka, he had vowed to master Hindi in time for the traditional Independence-day address to the nation. He stepped to the rostrum and valiantly delivered his speech in halting, and sometimes comic Hindi. ('Given the fact,' explained one supportive newspaper, 'that Mr Deve Gowda's familiarity with Hindi is only a few months old his speech obviously lacked the rhetorical flourishes.') It was a talismanic moment in India's public life. The mighty Congress, the invincible juggernaut of India's twentieth-century history, the party so intimately associated with Nehru and his family, which had set the terms of an Indian identity, had crashed to electoral defeat in May. No ready substitute had emerged. The strongest challenger, the Bharatiya JanataParty (BJP), representing a resurgent Hindu nationalism, had made unprecedented advances in the elections, and for a brief fortnight it had actually held office -- so interrupting India's record of government by non-religious parties. But, short of a majority, the BJP too had fallen, and power had passed to the men from the regions, a hastily arranged medley of more than a dozen parties led by the farmer from Karnataka, Deve Gowda

After almost fifty years of self-rule, the old certitudes of Indian politics had crumbled. Yet one powerful continuity stretched across this half-century of spectacular and often turbulent events: the presence of a democratic state. As a single territory commanded by a state, India has long posed something of a puzzle even: the British who had possessed it as an empire marvelled at its oddity. Macaulay, with characteristic but for once justifiable exaggeration, famously described it as 'the strangest of all political anomalies'. As an independent democratic state since 1947, India remains defiantly anomalous.

Few states created after the end of European empire have been able to maintain democratic routines; and India's own past, as well as the contingencies of its unity, prepared it very poorly for democracy Huge, impoverished, crowded with cultural and religious distinctions, with a hierarchical social order almost deliberately designed to resist the idea of political equality, India had little prospective reason to expect it could operate as a democracy. Yet fifty years later India continues to have parliaments and courts of law, political parties and a free press, and elections for which hundreds of millions of voters turn out, as a result of which governments fall and are formed. Democracy is a type of government, a political regime of laws and institutions. But its imaginative potency rests in its promise to bring alien and powerful machines like the state under the control of human will, to enable a community of political equals before the constitutional law to make their own history. Like those other great democratic experiments inaugurated in eighteenth-century America and France, India became a democracy without really knowing how, why, or what it meant to be one. Yet the democratic idea has penetrated the Indian political imagination and has begun to corrode the authority of the social order and of a paternalist state. Democracy as a manner of seeing and acting upon the world is changing the relation of Indians to themselves.

How did the idea arrive in India? And what has it done to India, and India to it?

2

Contrary to India's nationalist myths, enamoured of immemorial 'village republics', pre-colonial history little prepared it for modern democracy. Nor was democracy a gift of the departing British. Democracy was established after a profound historical rupture -- the experience, at once humiliating and enabling, of colonialism, which made it impossible for Indians to regard their own past as a sufficient resource for facing the future and condemned them, in struggling against the subtle knots of the foreigner's Raj, to struggle also against themselves. But it also incited them to imagine new possibilities: of being a nation, of possessing their own state, and of doing so on their own terms in a world of other states. By gradually raising the edifice of a state whose sovereign powers stretched across the vast Indian landscape, the British made politics the unavoidable terrain on which Indians would have to learn to act.

In pre-colonial India, power was not embodied in the concept of a state, whether republican or absolutist. Across the subcontinent, varied economies and cultures were matched by an assortment of political arrangements. They were nothing like the static 'oriental despotism' conjured up by colonial and Marxist historians: deliberative and consultative forms of politics did exist, but there was no protracted historical struggle to install institutions of representative government, nor (despite a hardly passive rural or urban poor) did large-scale popular movements act to curb the powers of rulers. Most importantly, before the gradual British acquisition of most of India's territory no single imperium had ever ruled the whole, immense subcontinental triangle. India's social order successfully curbed and blunted the ambitions of political power, and made it extraordinarily resistant to political moulding.

The basis of this resistance lay in the village, and its distinct form of community: the jati. These groups, numbering in the thousands, were governed by strict rules of endogamy and by taboos about purity, and arranged a social hierarchy: varna. The precise ideological sources of this system are obscure, but elements may be traced to one of the very late hymns of the Rig Veda, which describes the dismemberment of the cosmic giant Purusha, the primeval male whose sacrifice created the world: 'When they divided the Man, into how many parts did they apportion him? What do they call his mouth, his two arms and thighs and feet?/ His mouth became the Brahmin; his arms were made into the Warrior [kshatriya], his thighs the People [vaishiya], and from his feet the servants [shudra] were born. 'The resulting intricate filigree of social interconnections and division -- a hierarchical order of peerless sophistication -- defies any simple account Perplexed Westerners came to describe it by the term 'caste', but a wide distance separates the deceptively well-defined doctrinal claims of the caste order and the actual operations of what is an essentially local, small-scale system. Two of its characteristics, however, are particularly direct. The system of jati and varna deflected responsibility for social outcomes away from human individuals or agencies and diffused it in a metaphysical universe, so making it impossible to assign blame for social wrongs and oppressions to particular individuals or groups. Jatis themselves were far from immutable in their social rank, and regularly rose and fell within the varna order; but the structure itself showed remarkable resilience. Further, the system did not concentrate status, wealth and power exclusively in one social group but distributed them to different parts of the social order, with the result that no one social group could impose its will on the whole society.

Yet India was not simply an archipelago of villages imprisoned by the local ties of caste. The prevalence of common aesthetic and architectural styles, as well as myths and ritual motifs, attests to the presence of a larger, more cohesive power. This derived neither from a unique political authority, such as an absolutist state, nor from a monolithic, codified religion controlled by a Church, but rather from the ideological mechanisms of pre-colonial India. These rested on a monopoloy of literacy vested in one social group, the Brahmins. The Brahminic order in India was certainly an oppressive system of economic production, and it enforced degrading rules about purity and pollution. But its capacity to endure and retain its grip over a wide georgraphical area flowed from severely selective distribution of of literacy. The Brahminic pattern survived not through allying with temporary bearers of political power, nor by imposing a single belief system on the society. Rather, it cultivated a high tolerance for diverse beliefs and religious observances, withdrew from political power -- the realm of Artha, or mere worldly interest -- and directed its energies towards the regulation of social relationships; it made itself indispensable to the conduct of essential rituals, and it provided law for every aspect of social life. Its interpretative powers were recognized as the ultimate sanctions and authority for caste rules. By renouncing political power, the Brahminic order created a self-coercing, self-disciplining society founded on a vision of a moral order. This society was easy to rule but difficult to change: a new ruler had merely to capture the symbolic seat of power and go on ruling as those before him had done. India could be defeated easily, but the society itself remained unconquered and unchanged.

Politics was thus consigned to the realm of spectacle and ceremony. No concept of a state, an impersonal public authority with a continuous identity, emerged: kings represented only themselves, never enduring states. It was this arrangement of power that explains the most peculiar characteristic of India's pre-colonial history: the perpetual instability of political rule, the constant rise and fall of dynasties and empires, combined with the society's unusual fixity and cultural consistency. Its identity lay not in transient political authority but in the social order. The ambitions of political rulers could therefore never become absolute, as they readily became in Europe: the rulers could not transform or mobilize society for particular ends. The state as a sovereign agency with powers to change society, to alter its economic relations, to control its beliefs or rewrite its laws, did not exist. The political authority that the many territorial kingdoms of the Indian subcontinent possessed was more a matter of paramountcy than sovereignty: kingship was exercised through overlapping circuits of rights and obligations that linked together diverse local societies but also sheltered them from the intrusions of any one ruler. Rulers restricted themselves to extracting wealth in the form of rent; they had no means to rearrange the property order or effect large shifts in the balance of wealth from one group to another, and thus secure permanent allies.

Unlike the history of Europe, that of pre-colonial India shows no upward curve in the responsibilities and capacities of the state. The very externality of politics, its distance from what was taken to be the moral core of the society, was the key to the society's stability. But this also made politics an exposed flank, an arena of contact with the outside world. Along with routines of trade and commercial exchange, politics became the vestibule where the alien was received, entertained, and usually contained. Here Indians were willing to learn techniques of statecraft from others without feeling that this endangered the inner core of their own identities. This shaping of social space made it easy for the concepts of Western politics to force an initial bridgehead in India and then, with their historically unprecedented powers, to overwhelm the society itself.

No issue divides India's historians more sharply than the impact of colonialism. Did British rule ruthlessly fracture the patterns of Indian society, or was it compelled to adapt to native styles, and merely preside in glorified manner over the more subterranean movements of India's history? Whatever view one takes of its economic and social consequences, the political effect of the British intrusion was unambiguous and resounding. The foreign rulers brought with them to India a concept of the state -- with its distinct, if often locally influenced, administrative and military technologies, its claim to rule over a precise territory, its determination to initiate social reforms, and its reorganization of the texture of community -- that drastically changed ideas about power in India. The British gradually but decisively defined power in political terms and located it in a sovereign, central state. The colonial template of rule altered over time, diverted by changing British ideologies about the state's legitimate purposes and the character of Indian society. Shifting historiographical fashions in interpreting Britain's own medieval history, for instance, directly affected the Raj's political practices: the view of India as a 'feudal' society with a natural ordering of lords, chiefs and yeomen, which called for little interference by the British, by the end of the nineteenth century gave way to one of a society composed of permanently feuding 'communities' that had each to be represented and paternally protected by the British Raj. Initially, British rule was often little more than a series of severely local expedients of a commercial agency, the East India Company, but by the end of the nineteenth century it began to acquire a more tangible presence. This imperial state was charged with relatively restricted duties: to siphon off commercial and economic benefits more efficiently and, above all, to prevent any repetition of the Uprising of 1857, when a rebellion begun by Indian troops in north India spread to become the most serious domestic military challenge the British Raj was ever to face.

The state which the British built in India came to stand in a peculiar cultural relationship with Indian society: the British considered their most urgent task the Hobbesian one of keeping order over a bounded territory, but the Raj could not rely on preserving the peace simply through coercion or even by the deft manipulation of interests. It had to govern opinion. This it did by ostentatious spectacle, imperial Durbars and ceremonial progresses. These despotic tea parties won over a small circle of British loyalists, but there was no reshaping of common beliefs in the society at large. The barrier was essentially linguistic, and it endured after 1947. The language of administration used by the Raj -- for example, for revenue collection and property law -- had to be understood if it was to be effective, and so an elaborate and sonorous mongrel jargon of everyday usage was created, a Hobson-Jobson vernacular vocabulary. But the language of politics and legislation did not stray from the Queen's English. The British rulers swathed themselves in mystique by proclaiming in an alien and powerful language, but few among the ruled could actually comprehend what was said.

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Table of Contents

Foreword to the Paperback Edition
Preface
Author's Note
Map The British Empire in India Before 1947
Map India in 1997
Introduction: Ideas of India 1
1 Democracy 15
2 Temples of the Future 61
3 Cities 107
4 Who is an Indian? 150
Epilogue: The Garb of Modernity 196
References 209
Bibliographical Essay 217
Index 243
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