Maria Misra. Vishnu's Crowded Temple: India since the Great Rebellion. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008. Plates. xxxiii + 535 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-300-13721-7.
Reviewed by Anirudh Deshpande
Published on H-Asia (February, 2009)
Commissioned by Sumit Guha (The University of Texas at Austin)
History of Modern India
This work competes with several recent books. Sekhar Bandyopadhyay's excellent From Plassey to Partition (2004), Patrick French's Liberty or Death: India's Journey to Independence and Partition (1997), and Ramchandra Guha's Nehruvian India after Gandhi (2007) are all superior to this recklessly written book. While large parts of the narrative reconfirm what is already known about India, Maria Misra, probably with an eye on the elite market in "happening" India, concludes on an optimistic note: "In 1907 the Raj was beset by political, economic and social crises.... To a casual observer this gloomy catalogue of ills and controversies of a century ago might seem remarkably similar to those that still afflict India today. But India has changed. It has freed itself from the hierarchical cosmology decreed by the Raj; it is a democracy, not an autocracy; and there is an overarching sense of 'Indianness', albeit a fragile one. This is a change so profound that even the gods have bowed before it" (p. 447).
While books end, and this one takes a long time doing so, history does not. The way the Indian ruling groups and their representative politicians have subverted democracy lends credence to the view, expressed recently by the senior sociologist Ashis Nandy, that in states like Gujarat it is difficult to distinguish democracy from psephocracy. Furthermore, the Maoists, who have hardly been suppressed as Misra casually asserts, and their predecessors have asserted these facts of Indian "democracy" for a long time. Indeed, contemporary Maoism is nourished by the failures of the Indian state. The last twenty-five years have only compounded these failures. Just because India has not splintered like Pakistan or some African and Balkan countries does not mean that all is well with its so-called democracy. The list of insurgent regions like Kashmir, the North East, and the deprived regions in central India is growing longer. In Gujarat, the Hindus and Muslims constitute two separate nations--one supported by the state and the other brutalized.
Chapter 1 begins with the rebellion of 1857. The rebellion shattered the Utilitarian dream of casting India in the image of bourgeois Britain and shifted British policy toward paternalism and the imperative of finding loyalty among the alienated Indians. Due largely to the survival strategy of the British, a curious hybrid of modernization and tradition developed in India. The post-Mutiny attempts at creating a progressive aristocracy, a contradiction in terms, ended up producing "an embarrassing clique of parasitical spendthrifts" (p. 17). These were the degenerate native princes supported by the Raj in an effort to promote enlightened despotism in parts of India and keep India disunited at the same time.
Similarly, in British India, a great difference arose between the aims and results of British policy. This policy emanated from a mix of ideologies guiding the British and their peculiar understanding of Indian history and the compulsions of colonial rule. Thus quite often official policy created the very characteristics of Indians or reinforced them to such an extent that perceptions and reality became fused in the colonial project. According to Misra, peasants and religion were two among such quintessentially Indian attributes produced and mythicized by the British. Colonial rule destroyed India's substantial manufacturing sector; "peasantized" India; and proceeded to keep peasants poor, illiterate, and backward, thus making it easy to blame them for India's backwardness later. The division of Indians into martial and non-martial types was another instance of "divide and rule." Other developments in the colonial period assisted the process. For instance, the railways, by promoting pilgrimages on a large scale, firmed up religious identities and strengthened the perception that Indians were essentially divided along religious lines. As Misra notes, "while no one would suggest that pre-British India was a paradise of religious unity, and certainly there were cases of religious rioting and violence, these were sporadic and localized. There was not yet any sense that India was divided into two rigidly separate and opposed religious communities" (p. 25). In this context, the long term influence of Orientalists, like William Jones and Nathaniel Halhead, was particularly damaging. "Conservative by temperament, these men were determined that India should be governed according to her own traditions, but they tended to view these traditions through a European lens" (p. 26). Similarly, from the 1870s onward, race science converted India into "a great zoo of pure racial types where modish theories could be put to the test" (p. 38). These observations may appear new to first time readers of Indian history, but they have been made by numerous scholars since the emergence of a postmodern turn in Indian historiography several years ago. The ideas of race, caste, and essentialized community attributes like crime were also propagated by the censuses, which systematized "the profusion of castes, hitherto seen as phenomena with purely local meaning, into national entities" (p. 36). The effect of this on India was "momentous" and devastating. These submissions on "peasantization" and "casteization" are valid but not novel.
They also convey the impression that the author is overemphasizing the role of British policy in the creation of social identities in India. The British obviously did not produce caste or religion in India but they "modernized" and politicized these to an extent unknown in precolonial India. The result of this was the creation of a "Babel Mahal" of political differences and social anxieties centered on religious reform, sexuality, women's emancipation, and even cow protection. British policy toward various Indian social groups pursuing upward mobility created a fragmented society.
The formation of myriad identities set in motion by British policy since 1857 bore fruit, and India emerged as a complex, divided, and uncontrollable society on the eve of World War I. Having achieved this, the British began to perceive themselves as neutral umpires in a game of "wicket imperialism" played in the Indian subcontinent. However, with time, it became clear that the main aim of Britain's neutral umpiring in India was the prevention of Indian unity against British rule. While British economic plans failed, religious, caste, linguistic, and regional strife sharpened in the interwar years as the consequences of "wicket imperialism." The study of communal riots presented by Misra makes it clear that the policy of divide and rule helped the British but undermined colonial rule at the same time. This familiar story was repeated in the remaining years of colonial rule--culminating in the mayhem of partition--and the history of independent India to date.
It would be wrong to conclude, as some historians do, that only biased umpiring was responsible for undoing the Indian national movement. Gandhian nationalism failed to convert the polyphony of Indian politics into a resounding chorus of Indian unity. Mahatma Gandhi drew sustenance from the fact that no Indian wanted to create an Englistan in India but the weakness of the Congress stemmed from the lack of agreement on what India should become. The nationalists, therefore, achieved momentary and fleeting unity against the British during the freedom movement. By the mid-1920s, a variety of right- and left-wing ideologies had emerged in India, but, curiously enough, Gandhi, not a leftist at all, became the commander in chief of the Indian national movement. Why did this happen?
"His master strategy of non-violent non-cooperation was founded on the beguilingly simple premise that since the Raj depended on Indian co-operation, the withdrawal of that co-operation would automatically bring about its fall. While the Raj was never completely toppled, it did totter, and the Gandhian Congress was singularly adept at wounding its moral legitimacy and stealthily displacing its practical authority" (p. 182). But the Gandhian movement, "despite the leftism of some of its leaders," was "decidedly conservative" and "a victory [was won] at the cost of narrowing the social base and idealistic ambition of nationalism" (p. 183). Misra's description of Gandhi's political style repeats what numerous Indian critics of Indian nationalism have said since the 1930s. The secret of Gandhi's hegemony over the Congress was his vision that promoted the paternalistic control of the elites over a caste-ridden society. Ultimately the Gandhian strategy failed to keep India united.
Thus, the events of 1947 were a combined result of British policy, Congress nationalism, and Muslim League separatism. Echoes of an older Marxist reading of Indian history can be heard in the following words chosen by Misra to explain why the Congress accepted Pakistan. The fast deteriorating law and order situation from 1946 onward united the left and right factions of the Congress who "wanted a swift transfer of power in order to quell potentially socially radical movements" (p. 241). Moreover, the threat to unity posed by several princely states pulling in separate directions led Congress leaders to conclude that "one partition was a reasonable price to pay to avoid many" (p. 241). It is a different matter that the price was finally paid not by the Congress and Muslim League leaders or by the British who had already planned a withdrawal from an India descending into chaos but in the blood of ordinary Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus who were too baffled to comprehend what their leaders and the Raj did to them.
On the whole, Misra's narrative of Indian nationalism amounts to presenting old wines in new bottles. The author has only summarized the original critiques of Gandhian nationalism put together by a number of historians who appear in the notes to her lengthy chapters.
In addition to reiterating ideas of previous historians, the book also includes a number of errors. The chapter "A House Divided," for example, narrates the processes and events crucial to the partition of India. She describes the mutinous sailors in Bombay in the "corvette Hindustan" training "the main guns on the city" (p. 231). The Hindustan was in Karachi! On page 144, the spinning wheel is called chakra, not once but thrice. Criticizing Gandhi is one thing but misspelling his main symbol is unpardonable. RSS branches are referred to as the shakras instead of shakhas (p. 169).
Pandit Nehru's leadership of free India from 1947 to 1964 had numerous important consequences, including a flawed democracy. Nehru's model of a mixed economy, which was supposed to reproduce the best of Western capitalism and Soviet socialism in Indian conditions, would have succeeded only by evenly developing a diverse country. It failed because the Congress was too corrupt to translate Nehru's vision into reality. Since middle-class Indians continue to live with the legacy of Nehru, simultaneously debunking and profiting from it, it is important to see why and how Nehru and his successors failed to develop India. "Nehru is now often seen as a tragic figure, a great man with a great vision weakened by a fatal flaw--his own reluctance to fight vested interests.... His flaw lay not in his lack of courage, but in his choice of weapons. The main weapon in his armoury was left liberal progressivism borrowed from the British; his army, the Congress party. Neither was sufficient to the task" (p. 310). Unfortunately, the Indian leadership since Nehru has been devoid of his courage. Hence, while the Congress continued to pay lip service to his ideals and the Bombay club of Indian capitalists prospered under state protection, Nehru's dreams came apart during his last lonely years. The chapter on Nehru also contains a weather-beaten critique of the Nehru-Mahalanobis planning strategy. Misra lists the causes of Indian economic failures under Nehru in comparison with Korea. "So, underlying the failure to promote economic development and social equality was not planning as such, but a fundamental flaw in the Nehruvian liberal notion of a gradualist and consensual form of planning in a society and economy that required drastic and radical institutional change" (pp. 284-285).
The Indian state remained shackled to its colonial legacy during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, illnesses, inefficiency, and corruption remain exceptionally high in India. The bombastic statements of its leaders hide a state held hostage by extremely violent vested interests in the name of community, democracy, or the market. Those who live in India experience all this in their everyday lives without necessarily reading what "experts," like Misra, write from a safe distance.
. Anirudh Deshpande, "Sailors and the Crowd: Popular Protest in Karachi, 1946," Indian Economic and Social History Review 26, no. 1 (March 1989): 1-28.
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