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Democracy, Difference and Social Justice edited by Gurpreet Mahajan. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1998.


Democracy, for most people today, seems to be a set of self-evident rules, principles and practices – more so in countries like India, where it came as an almost readymade and finished product. Teaching democratic theory and the history of democratic politics to students here, therefore, involves substantial effort. Imagine the incomprehension involved in coming to terms with the idea that till the early decades of the 20th century many western democracies did not have universal suffrage! That for years, notwithstanding the great principles of liberty, fraternity and equality, the majority of the populations – women constituting about half the population, and the propertyless – were simply non-citizens. Not to speak, of course, of the colonized populations in the continents of Asia, Africa and Latin America. Was this a contradiction in the thought of those early democrats? Was it hypocrisy? Or is there some other way of understanding this circumstance? A reader in democratic theory which gives a sense of the wide array of positions and debates that have gone into the making of this product is therefore really welcome.

The volume under review, put together and edited by Gurpreet Mahajan, who has long been involved in teaching political theory, comprises a wide range of texts regarded as landmarks in the evolution of democracy – its theory and practice included. So while the volume provides select extracts from the classical texts like those by Locke, Rousseau and Tom Paine, it also presents Jefferson’s American Declaration of Independence, a letter by Abraham Lincoln on race and equality, or nearer home the report of the first Backward Classes Commission penned by Kaka Kalelkar. Classical statements against racism like the address by W.E.B. DuBois, or the paper on women’s rights by Harriet Taylor Mill and J.S. Mill are also featured in the volume and help provide a glimpse of the debates so characteristic of the history of democracy.

Mahajan has organized this immensely diverse material – articles, statements and manifesto extracts – in an interesting way by according a central place to the concept of difference. As she argues in her introduction, ‘The particularity of democracy is that…it distinguishes between two sorts of difference: those that are sources of inequality…and those that protect and nourish creativity.’ The former, she argues, democracy seeks to overcome, while celebrating the latter (p. 1). In fact, she asserts that it is the concept of difference that ‘allows us to understand the co-presence’ of the two apparently contradictory concepts (of liberty and equality) within a single ideology: an interesting idea which she unfortunately does not elucidate.

Nevertheless, deploying this notion as the central organizing category, she classifies the texts in the volume into five different sections. The first titled ‘Difference as Discrimination’ includes most of the essays/pieces mentioned above and two more on multiculturalism by Will Kymlicka and Yael Tamir. The second section, ‘Difference as Diversity’, includes another set of classic essays by such theorists as Arendt Lijphart on consociational democracy, John Calhoun on minority representation along with Michael Oakshott, Chantal Mouffe, John Gray, A.O. Lovejoy, Bhikhu Parekh, William Connolly and Carl Schmitt. The third section on ‘Social Justice’ includes essays by Rawls and Dworkin. Clearly, this galaxy of names itself indicates both the necessity and importance of bringing out a volume such as this; simultaneously the difficulty of reviewing it.

Mahajan notes at least five ways in which the notion of cultural difference transforms the very terrain of political theory. An insistence on the notion must necessarily interrogate the idea of formal equality that believes in treating everybody equally – unequals included – in pursuance of its cherished goal of assimilation into ‘national’ cultures (pp. 7-8). To the extent that it insists on preserving the cultures of the marginalized, it also seeks to limit the liberty of some – notably that of ‘outsiders’ in the areas and lands inhabited by indigenous populations (p. 8).

In doing all this, it resists the idea of a homogenous national culture – questioning thus the very project of the nation state (p. 9). By implication, then, if not explicitly, this assertion of cultural difference also suspects and, in its stronger versions, interrogates, the idea of universal history (pp. 8-9) recognizing as it does different temporalities. Finally, she argues, it recasts and redefines the concerns of democratic theory as is evident, for instance, in the replacement of the old assimilationist ideal by a reintroduction of the idea of segregation (p. 9). The desegregation required by formal equality did not exactly lead to very happy consequences, as for example, with the experience of black children in mixed schools who faced crippling hostility.

However, given the fact that there has been such serious contestation and conflict over the meaning of various facets of democratic theory and practice which the collection of essays in the volume itself illustrates, it is remarkable that in her introduction Mahajan produces a seamless narrative of the unfolding of the discourse of democratic theory. So, ‘…social equality was written into democratic theory’ (p. 4); the right to franchise ‘was gradually extended to the propertyless classes, minority religions, oppressed races and women’ (p. 3); and ‘though initially the presence of cultural differences was used to justify colonization... after considerable resistance from the colonized, these differences were consciously set aside to make place for independent nation-states’ (p. 3). The mention of resistances, struggles, conflicts and ruptures comes in this narrative merely as passing episodes in the realization of its essence – social equality.

One has no quarrel with Mahajan when she says that because democratic thought spoke of representative government, it was forced to include people of various excluded categories. But rather than see these struggles and conflicts as constitutive of democratic theory and practice, she comes up with what appears to be a highly implausible reading. To her, ‘(T)he point to note is that democratic theory was most sensitive to the demand for political participation…(A)s such equality in the political domain was its main concern’ (p. 3). What stood in the way of achieving this were social prejudices (p. 4) and to that extent, ‘institutions and social practices that operated on the assumption of …inequality had to be dismantled’ (p. 4). If one reads this with her earlier assertion that democracy seeks to overcome inequality while celebrating difference – we seem to be talking of not actually existing democracies but the ideal, the utopia. But then, in that utopia, socialism could equally make the claims she makes on behalf of democracy.

Coming to the section on India, it is striking that all four essays included in the volume are related to the issue of positive discrimination. In this section we have, apart from the extract from Kaka Kalelkar mentioned above, an article by D. L. Sheth – who was a member of the Backward Classes Commission – and two positions from the other side represented by Andre Beteille and Dipankar Gupta. Probably because democracy came to India as a more or less ‘finished’ product, many of its other aspects have not really been an object of thought, contemplation and debate in the ways in which questions of equality and social justice have been. It may in fact be safely argued that democracy in India has been more preoccupied with tackling questions of social and economic discrimination and oppression than it has been with questions of liberty. The Emergency to this day remains, for instance, an unexplored issue in Indian academic thinking.

Finally, on a different note, a question raised by Carl Schmitt’s essay: the most astounding absence of all liberal democratic theory happens to be that organism of modern society without which democracy would be impossible to imagine – the political party. It is amazing that neither constitutions nor texts of political theory even refer to this central entity and Schmitt raises this in a spine-chilling way.

The institutions of the parliamentary system are based on the idea that free and reasoned deliberations are the only way to sort things out – as if it were simply a matter right and wrong opinions that had to be sorted out. Schmitt on the other hand argues that political parties mobilize on the basis of interests and passion. There is an irreducible split, therefore, in his reading of the very heart of democracy – between the supposed sphere of reasonable discourse embodied in the parliamentary institutions and the sphere of passions and interests embodied in the mobilizational politics of parties.

A frightening scenario developed around this split in the early decades of this century in Europe, of which moment this text of Schmitt’s is actually a product. The massive erosion of legitimacy of the parliamentary institutions was closely linked to the distance this faith in a rational public sphere marked from the ‘irrational masses’ who suddenly entered them. That the ‘entry of the masses into history’ should spell doom for democracy is a paradox (or is it?) that stands in crying need of serious theorization – especially for us in India today.


Aditya Nigam


THE SAFFRON WAVE: Democracy and Hindu Nationalism in Modern India by Thomas Blom Hansen. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1999.


BJP AND THE EVOLUTION OF HINDU NATIONALISM: From Periphery to Centre by Partha S. Ghosh. Manohar, Delhi, 1999.


For a party which had slumped to its worst-ever state in the mid-80s (a mere 2 seats in the 1984 Lok Sabha), to have come back to power for the third time at the end of the century must be some cause for satisfaction. Its strength in Parliament is now 182 and the vote share stands at 24%. More important, it has managed to win political respectability by being able to craft a 24 party alliance. Only three years back, despite being the single largest party in the 11th Lok Sabha, its government could last a mere 13 days because few parties were willing to associate with it.

To read these developments as only a cynical coming together for power would be an error. In its trajectory from the periphery to centre-stage, the BJP has not just increased its vote share, it has broken out of its conventional social base, both spatial and ‘ethnic’. For long seen primarily as a North Indian urban party of the upper caste, middle class, trading Hindus, the BJP, as the survey data generated by the CSDS reveals, has both consolidated its presence among the upper caste-class Indians, it has made significant inroads into the upper OBCS as also the upwardly mobile sections of the SCS and STS. Equally, it has broken out of its spatial confines by significantly increasing its presence in the South and East. And the fact that much of this may be due to its alliances with regional partners does not reduce the significance of this right of centre, Hindu nationalist party becoming the key node around which the Indian polity currently revolves.

Not unexpectedly, these developments have generated concern, if not fear, in what might be called the ‘secularist’ camp. It is pointed out that the growth in the support base of the party is fragile, limited and riven with contradictions. Not only is the BJP distrusted by religious minorities, its inroads into the lower caste-bloc remains thin. Equally, there is the reliance upon alliance partners, few of whom share its ideological preferences. Further, it is argued, that the alliances are contingent upon a distrust of the Congress; that in the not too distant future, as different political formations attempt to consolidate their own areas of influence, the arrangements might snap.

Far more significant than looking at the shifting electoral picture is a reading of the BJP as a negative social force, one which, if permitted to consolidate, will generate severe strains in India’s multicultural society. Critics point out, and not without basis, to the ideological underpinnings of the party, its favouring of an aggressive, homogenising Hindu nationalism; its cultural project which seeks to rewrite History, manipulate symbols, control media and so on. The role of the party and its affiliates in various communal riots is highlighted as proof that despite its current moderate posturing, the BJP, at its heart, remains a communal (some argue fascist) force.

Whatever be the differences in perception or political persuasion, the need for detailed research into and understanding about the party is incontestable. Over long years, what we had was a plethora of polemical-ideological tracts – exercises which more served the purpose of helping the reader identify the proclivity of the writer than inform him about the subject. Not only was much of the writing marked by an essentialism – relying as it did on statements of origins and beginnings – it was woefully inadequate on details about shifting social base, attitudes and policies. While we did have some idea of electoral performance, knowledge about affiliate organisations – the rss, vhp, Bajrang Dal, Rashtrasevika Samiti, Bhartiya Mazdoor Sangh, Swadeshi Jagran Manch, what to speak of the dozens of sadhu samaj’s – remained inadequate. One suspects that the paucity of analysis was a reflection not just of the laziness of our intellectual classes (in particular about empirical research) but that there was genuine confusion about the requisite frameworks for analysis.

The paucity of Indian scholarship has partially been met by the labours of foreign scholars – in particular European. The earlier books by Bruce Graham (The Challenge of Hindu Nationalism, 1987; Hindu Nationalism and Indian Politics, 1990) have been supplemented by the detailed monographs by Christophe Jaffrelot (The Hindu Nationalist Movement and Indian Politics, 1996), Eva Hellman’s work on the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (1993), Peter Van der Veer’s masterly studies on the Ramjanmabhoomi movement (1988, 1994) among others. To this growing list can now be added Thomas Blom Hansen’s book. And just to prove that Indian scholarship too is waking up, we have the Yogendra Malik and V.B. Singh book (Hindu Nationalists in India, 1995) and now Partha S. Ghosh.

The two books under consideration are useful supplements to the literature, though they vary greatly in focus, style and theoretical elegance. For sheer information about the BJP and its affiliates, Ghosh’s book is quite unparalleled. The collection of quotations, documents, references on the Sangh Parivar’s history, ideology, political agenda, economic and foreign policy, as also basic electoral data provides an excellent base on which further questions can be considered. And yet, the book leaves the reader cold – possibly because Ghosh does not have a framework within which the information is structured. This is further compounded because of his excessive reliance on secondary material.

Partha Ghosh effectively counters the knee-jerk demonisation of the bjp in certain academic quarters, demonstrating not only its affinity with other mainstream political formations but its lack of ideological fixity (pragmatism). On many issues it is difficult to demarcate the Congress, with its fervent secularist protestations, from the BJP. Yet he insufficiently reflects upon the cultural project of the Sangh and the BJP – the one arena where it distinguishes itself from a ‘mere’ political party. Nor does he try to disentangle the many variants of Hindu nationalism and culture, crudely manifested in the growing divide between its upper caste and OBC leadership and base. And as for the troubling question, ‘Will the stabilization of bjp as the ruling party mean an end of multicultural India’, he has no answer. To write, ‘The bjp is communal, but… and the Congress is secular, but…’ is only to beg the question.

Hansen is undoubtedly more satisfying, though difficult to comprehend for a lay reader. Unlike other analysts, Hansen attributes the saffron wave of the last 15 years not just to ‘imaginative political strategies’ or ‘reserves of religious nationalism’, but locates the growth ‘in the broader realm of public culture – the public space in which a society and its constituent individuals and communities imagine, represent and recognise themselves through political discourse, commercial and cultural expressions, and representations of state and civic organisations.’

Moreover, he raises a deeper question: ‘Is Hindu nationalism revealing the dark side of the middle class culture and social world of the "educated sections" who have dominated Indian public culture and the Indian state for so long – the authoritarian longings, the complacency, and the fear of the "underdog", the "masses" and the Muslims?’ India, like many other Third World societies has witnessed a majoritarian and moral backlash against what is seen as excessive liberalism in the arena of public culture.

This broad tendency Hansen traces from the mid-19th century onward – Bankim, Lala Lajpat Rai, Tilak all the way to Savarkar and Golwalkar. And yet the Sangh affiliates, more than the Congress right-wing, favour this tendency. What leaves this reader uneasy is that while we are provided with a picture of this ‘retrogressive’ cultural and political viewpoint, we are not shown why such a ‘project’ could so easily be sold to peoples and communities whose self-interest it does not serve. To state it more sharply, the ability, recently, to shift Hindu ire from the Muslim community to the Christians cannot be explained away by a fear of numbers, proximity to Pakistan, or simply an alliance with the West. If many, themselves products of Christian institutions, have fallen prey to this malicious propaganda, then alongside Sanghist discourse we also need to scrutinise the secularist speech. Our tendency to dismiss all fears and urgings of a religious, cultural or identitarian nature, if associated with Hinduism, as xenophobic has contributed in no small measure to the current backlash.

Hansen’s strength lies in his ability to marry localized ethnographic accounts to a more formalistic analysis of ideological tracts. We thus get a picture, even if partial, of the vernacularisation of ideology. Though fearful about the implications for democracy if this tendency were to deepen, he avers from offering any quick-fix interventionist solutions.

For both Ghosh and Hansen, the battle has only been joined. Current prognosis apart, there is no cause for despair, if only because of the intensification of struggle between the different variants of Hindu nationalism. One understands that more such studies, more localised rather than national, are on the anvil. Maybe then we will be able to engage in less hysterical discussions.


Harsh Sethi


SAVAGING THE CIVILIZED: Verrier Elwyn, His Tribals and India by Ramachandra Guha. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1999.


I think it is true to say that a life of meditative or even reflective moral commitment cannot be a static one – it must involve transformation, dismantling, construction and reconstruction, an abandoning of old forms of life and building of new ones. The life of Verrier Elwyn, much forgotten in India and elsewhere now, saw many transformations – whether these transformations were always the result of a deep, dynamic moral commitment can, of course, be questioned – but that the moral quest was powerfully present throughout his extraordinary life is undeniable. Ramachandra Guha puts it rather neutrally in the very first sentence of his wonderful book thus: ‘Verrier Elwyn’s life was marked by a series of departures, by lively espousals and vigorous rejections of one way of life by another.’ While Guha is able to maintain this neutrality, frequently through a delicate balancing of one set of biographical details by another, the moral admiration, nevertheless, looms fairly large.

Born into a ‘lower-upper-middle class’* Anglo-Saxon family, of parents of resolute evangelical persuasion and (in the case of the father) practice, Verrier went to a determinedly low-church ‘public’ school of his mother’s choice (his father having died in Africa meanwhile), and soon became a prize pupil there. From school he went on to Merton College Oxford, which has a ‘reputation of gaiety that goes back to the Civil War, and a kitchen once deemed to be the best in Oxford’ (p. 14). At Merton, Verrier read English literature, took to it with great love and seriousness, became an active member of the Bodley Club, where the distinction between Don and undergraduate was minimal and which espoused an iconoclasm and inclusiveness that would have scandalized the evangelical literalness of his mentors at school and certainly his mother.

In 1924 he graduated with a First and moved, with a gift of one hundred pounds from the college, to read for a degree in Theology. The ground for the first transformation or ‘conversion’ had already been prepared. He did not accept the Secretaryship of the Bodley Club to which he had been elected, initially resisted immersion in Anglo-Catholicism, powerfully represented by F.W. Green, Chaplain of Merton, but took the first formal step towards it in his speech to the Church Society in October 1925, where he spoke of moving away from the ‘genteel inanities of conventional religion’ that ‘set of dead schematic rules, that series of many formal syllogisms.’

The final step came quickly enough with his decision to sail to India to join Christa Seva Sangh (css) founded in 1920 by the charismatic J.C. Winslow. ‘The CSS drew inspiration from the traditional ashram ideal of the Hindus, as well as from its more recent interpretation by Gandhi whose ashram at Sabarmati was at once a centre of the religious life and service to the poor.’ At first based near Ahmednagar, the Sangh moved, in 1925, to the ‘great Maratha city of Poona’. And it was in Poona that a party of five Englishmen, including Elwyn, arrived to devote themselves to a life of austerity, renunciation and service to the poor.

But the work of CSS soon brought Verrier into personal contact with Mahatma Gandhi, and, like some others before him, he found the Mahatma’s personality and vision totally irresistible. This proved decisive for the next ‘departure’ in Elwyn’s life. Gandhi’s ideas about equality of all religions and inseparability of the spirit of religion from authentic political practice made a profound impression. From here to the active espousal of the cause of Indian nationalism seems almost an inevitable step. Viewed now from the vantage point of India, nationalism and Gandhism, not only the Christian church which was an active partner in the imperialist project but even the Christa Seva Sangh with its total dissociation from the pomp of imperial officialdom, its embracing of poverty and commitment to the service of the wretched and the poor of India, and its love of Hinduism seemed an accomplice of the Raj.

Indeed, attempts were made from within the CSS to dissuade Verrier from active involvement in the nationalist cause. But the spell cast by the Mahatma was decisive for the moment. Although he never became part of the central core of the nationalist movement, and in spite of his longing to be imprisoned in the cause of swaraj (he never spent a night in jail), it was the nationalist phase of his life that finally turned Englishman Elwyn into an Indian, albeit of a rather surprising kind. The Mahatma’s spell (its extraordinary blessedness and happiness) wore off, but Verrier found in tribal India a more stable and deeper self-identity than in any of his previous ‘conversions’.

The Hindus as well as the Christians wanted to uplift the tribals; the point, however, was, as Guha puts it, ‘to know them’. Elwyn soon discovered that knowing in this case did not simply result from an ‘objective’ intellectual exercise, but required a profound emotional and moral acceptance of the autonomy and fullness of a form of life that is ‘savage’ as opposed to the ‘civilized’. Without such an acceptance, the ‘savage’ can only appear as ‘the not-yet-Christian’, or, the ‘not-yet-truly-Hindu’ or, as the ‘not-yet-what-have-you’.

Of course, acceptance and knowledge grow together – in a way they are two aspects of the same process. Nor does the acceptance require one to lose the self-reflexivity that is a necessary part of any cognitive enterprise. And very importantly the discovery of the fullness of the ‘savage’ is also, at the same time, the discovery of one’s own self. Guha would like to think of Elwyn’s anthropological work as exemplifying the ‘ideology of "cultural primitivism" as defined by A.O. Lovejoy and George Boas’ (p. 122). While this is quite acceptable, I think Elwyn’s anthropological writings – at least his great books on the tribes of middle India – give us a glimpse of a somewhat deeper understanding of the ideas of man, community and history than merely aligning him with the ideology of ‘cultural primitivism’ would suggest.

In this connection, Elwyn’s own acknowledgment of Malinowski as his anthropological master is, so it seems to me, very significant. Malinowski’s anthropology is at once a radical departure from Frazerian evolutionism and a simultaneous personal and professional rejection of Hegelian historicism which can give no place in history to peoples and communities who have not formed themselves into ‘states’. For Hegel, such peoples and communities belong to a ‘pre-historical period’. According to this view, therefore, some men are not really within proper history at all, if genuine history is defined as the possession of a state of one’s own. Nor is it by any means certain that they will ever enter it.

Members of nations which have failed to form their own states are either outside history, or if within it, only enter it by courtesy of other, echt historical, state-endowed nations (see E. Gellner, Culture, Identity and Politics, p. 49). The following statement of Malinowski’s in his Preface to The Casubian Civilization by Fr. Lorenz et al, is revealing:

To us pre-war Poles, nationality meant allegiance to the language, the traditions, the customs, and the ideas of our forefathers, as distinct from any political obligations or loyalties. By two at least of the powers who had divided and annexed our territory and absorbed our population, the whole political machinery of the state was directed towards de-nationalization.

Malinowski was, then, speaking in his anthropological work, as much of the Trobrian islanders as of the Poles. The Trobrian islander as well as the Pole enjoyed a self-sufficiency and autonomy which was profoundly ahistorical. It is not at all certain that Elwyn actually saw the Polish connection in Malinowski’s anthropology. But I do think, deep down, he would have agreed with Malinowski that the Agaria and the Baiga had an ahistorical justification which would be denied to them by statist historicism. History for them comes down in ‘myths’, and ‘myths’ come alive only when they actively inform the ‘inner’ life of the present. Myths which are merely relics of ‘history’, with no part in the inner life of the community, are empty and dead.

Elwyn’s ‘primitivism’ was at once an opposition to Christianity, which was willy-nilly part of the imperial state, and to Hinduism, which had aspirations of gaining statehood for itself. History has another danger inherent in it which could not have escaped Elwyn: it is frequently used as an instrument for the advancement of one kind or another of present political end. The strident, and often personal, criticism of Elwyn by ‘Hindu’ anthropologists – it won’t at all be unreasonable to believe – couldn’t have been free from such a political agenda.

The last phase of the ‘primitivist’ life of Elwyn saw him make rather surprising compromises. He accepted the fairly low level bureaucratic job of the Deputy Director of a government organization called the Anthropological Survey of India, and, then, the somewhat higher post, specially created for him, of Advisor to the Governor of Assam for Tribal Affairs. But he did sincerely believe that these compromises were necessary if he were to remain at all an effective spokesman of tribal India. He was sustained in this conviction by the growing friendship, or at least closeness, with another great Indian, Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent India.

Nehru’s own romantic views about tribal life, and his great desire to ‘preserve’ it, were the perfect support he needed for his tribal agenda. Elwyn’s work on NEFA as Adviser on Tribal Affairs was extraordinary in many ways, but his most monumental – and in the end, impossible – undertaking was to try and create, within the Indian state, and with active help from the state machinery, a stable place for the autonomy and self-sufficiency of the community life of the tribes. A Philosophy for NEFA was somewhat of a blueprint for this task. Elwyn was able to generate much enthusiasm in the specially recruited higher rung of administrators and, for a while, it did seem as though his tribal project was gaining momentum. Arunachal Pradesh (NEFA rechristened) presents, however, a vastly contrary picture. Tribal identities are, of course, much talked about. But such identities are no springs of action – the sources of moral and emotional energy; they are basically political constructs for statist political ends.

As a biography, Ramachandra Guha’s Savaging the Civilized is a brilliant achievement. Special interests and academic expertise in diverse fields are set aside in order to tell the story of Verrier Elwyn – a man of extraordinary courage driven by an intellectual energy whose source was always a clear moral emotional commitment. It is a biography in the very best tradition of biographical writings – neither history, nor sociology nor psychology, but all in the right measure. There is always a great deal of love and admiration involved in such an undertaking: while this is evident throughout the course of the book, in the language, in the great care taken in the documentation supporting the narrative and in its sympathetic agreement with Elwyn’s insights about tribal life, love – genuine love – also demands an objectivity which is free from any self-indulgence and which is guided by a will not to be merely just but to do justice to the object of love.

Thus we learn about Elwyn’s acts of ‘deception’, his ‘self-deceptive’ amnesia about certain matters, his unusual sexual energy, which, after his conversion to ‘savage’ ways, seemed to gain a freedom from morality that would have been unthinkable during his pre-savage life, his long-delayed marriage to the beautiful Lila and so on. But all this falls into place in the story, and in a very important sense – some would say, the only sense – the unity and integrity that a person has or does not have is the unity and integrity of the story that we can, in all truth and justice, tell about him. Ramachandra Guha’s book is in this very sense the story of Elwyn’s life.

As to Elwyn’s intellectual achievement I shall let the last sentence of Guha’s main text speak for it: ‘In this century it has been Verrier Elwyn, more than anyone else, who has shown us that the dialogue of cultures need not always be a dialogue of the deal.’

Guha’s book must be compulsory reading for every educated Indian. Not to read Guha’s book is to leave a profound blank in one’s conception of India.


Mrinal Miri

                            * George Orwell’s phrase, quoted by Guha.



DRUG CULTURE IN INDIA: A Street Ethnographic Study of Heroin Addiction in Bombay by Molly Charles, K.S. Nair and Gabriel Britto. Rawat Publications, Jaipur and New Delhi, 1999.


The tradition of analysing ‘deviant’ sub-culture is not strong in Indian social science. Sociologists and social anthropologists in India confined their attention to the analysis of ‘normal’ social phenomenon and rarely are they interventionists. The book under review is a product of the conjoint effort of two social workers and a social anthropologist, which bears the distinctive marks of both disciplines.

The book combines both macro and micro perspectives in understanding ‘drug culture’ in India. The macro elements touched upon include ecological geographic factors, cultural elements, legislations, developments in transport and communications. The micro aspects studied are the traditional community, the dynamics of de-addiction centres, the process of marginalisation of drug users and their intro-psychic processes. The strategy of combining micro and macro dimensions yields a rich harvest of analysis and practical suggestions.

The authors rightly suggest that an activity can be labelled as deviant only with reference to its specific cultural milieu. Consumption of certain drugs (e.g., charas, ganja, bhang) existed as part of India’s traditional cultural baggage. Ignoring this, the Indian government adopted a United Nations sponsored Single Convention in 1960 which instantly criminalized use of intoxicants in any form, save the consumption of alcohol. With the passing of the Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substance Act, 1985 under the pressure from the UN in general and the United States of America in particular, drug abuse control in India was externalized. Further, consumption of alcohol, a cultural norm which was largely alien to India, was nativised and legalized and cultivation and consumption of cannabis, which were native to India for centuries, was criminalized and rendered illegal. This clearly points to the perverse consequence of invoking the legislative weapon ignoring the cultural context. It is no accident that the modern synthetic drug such as brown sugar became popular in India by the 1980s.

The point I am making is not that everything which is alien is to be rejected and all that is indigenous accepted and endorsed. In fact, within India the culturally endorsed consumption of specific cannabis was confined to particular geographic-cultural regions. Within these regions their use was restricted to specific categories and the general populace usually consumed them only on particular occasions as illustrated by the use of bhang during the Holi festival in North India. I am also not suggesting that traditional drugs, since they have been in use for centuries, are not habit-forming or injurious. These are to be understood through careful study and if found unacceptable they could be banned. But banning them without taking into account our cultural context speaks poorly of governance in India.

The NDPS Act did not simply criminalise traditional cultural norms but it also provided a vast market for alcohol benefiting world capitalism, created an underworld for smuggling and trading modern synthetic drugs adding a new dimension to the politician-police-criminal nexus influencing the functioning of political institutions through funding. Unfortunately, the authors do not go into the political economy of the NDPS Act.

The strength of the book lies in the analysis of the micro-dimension of drug culture, particularly the street ethnography of the unsettled ‘community’ of drug addicts. The making of an addict begins with an accidental, causal or pre-planned communication with users and peddlers of drug. Although the newly initiated invariably shows reluctance initially, he gradually gets habituated to drug use. Once addicted, he faces shortage of money to buy drugs which prompts him to take recourse to illegitimate means (e.g., stealing) to acquire them. This invariably results in apprehension and punishment by the law and order agencies. These factors in unison set in motion the process of marginalisation, often severing the addict’s relationship with his family, and the addict taking to street life. Once in the street the addict is sucked in by the deviant sub-culture and he adopts a new lifestyle – unshorn, unclean, ill-clad – and takes to new ways of getting money – begging, rag-picking – in addition to stealing.

The process does not stop at mere marginalisation of the addict as the authors seem to think but leads to stigmatisation. Marginalisation is a multifaceted process and is not confined to deviants, embracing many in the mainstream. It is the twin process of marginalisation and stigmatisation which creates the deviant sub-culture. The notion of stigma as defined and applied by E. Goffman could have been profitably invoked to enrich the analysis of drug culture.

The life cycle of addiction does not stop at marginalisation and stigmatisation. Some of the addicts are enticed into the process of de-addiction and return to ‘normal’ society. But the process is vexatious because de-stigmatisation does not occur smoothly as in popular perception: once an addict, always an addict. Understandably, in the face of non-acceptance, some of the de-addicted relapse back into addiction, while others successfully cope with societal hostility and get themselves rehabilitated.

The social structure of the deviant sub-culture consists of several actors: international smugglers, local stockists and traders, peddlers, addicts, personnel of de-addiction centres and drug users, the law and order agency and the community, including politicians. While some of the actors, and interaction between them are adequately described (e.g., peddlers and users, which are often interchangeable categories), the interaction between still others (e.g., the politicians and stockists/smugglers) is scarcely made visible in the study. In fact, it is this last set which is central to the understanding of the political economy of drug culture. As it stands, the study provides more a view from below than a view from above.

There is, however, much to commend in this book – the carefully collected qualitative data relating to everyday life of drug addicts, the effort to apply the conceptual framework of F. Musgrave, the attempt to locate drug taking in various cultural contexts, and the advocacy of contextually relevant legislations.


T.K. Oommen


ETHNICITY AND POPULIST MOBILIZATION: Political Parties, Citizens and Democracy in South India by Narendra Subramanian. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1999.


THE rise and consolidation of the DMK in Tamil Nadu and its impact on the electoral politics of the state had attracted a lot of attention among political scientists and commentators alike. Although the year 1967 witnessed the Congress as a party losing power in nine states across the country, Tamil Nadu continues to be the only state from where it has never won after 1967. And it is in this sense that the DMK factor assumes a special significance.

But then, it is also a fact that the Congress continues to be a relevant force in Tamil Nadu’s electoral scene (if not in the political discourse) to the extent that an alliance with the ‘national’ party is considered necessary for either of the Dravidian parties – the DMK or the AIADMK – to win seats, be it for the Lok Sabha or the state Assembly. This at least was the case until very recently. In other words, the Congress party could retain around 16% of the popular vote across the state for around three decades after it lost power in 1967.

It was only after a split in its ranks in April 1996 – the formation of the TMC – that the national outfit became irrelevant in Tamil Nadu; this indeed is in stark contrast to the political reality in such states as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar where the Congress has been decimated. This aspect, apart from the fact that Tamil Nadu was among the few states in the country where there was hardly a murmur of protest against the implementation of the Mandal Commission in 1990, makes the political discourse here distinct from that of any other region.

The book is of little help to anyone in search of an explanation about any of these distinct factors. The author makes no attempt to look for the specific ideological settings in which the Congress was ousted from power and the social settings in which the DMK was founded, the factors that helped the AIADMK supplant it and the conditions that prevail now. The absence of such analysis is striking simply because Narendra Subramanian presents, in the first few lines of his long preface, the Tamil Nadu experience as a model where the question of identity (‘politics of blood’ in his words) was resolved without ‘rivers of blood’.

Subramanian’s use of the term ‘ethnic’ to describe the basis of Dravidian politics carries with it a host of problems. To compare the rise of the dmk, and later the aiadmk, with any of the ethnic strifes in the world can in no way be appreciated; and a ‘departure’ of this kind from conceptual definitions, in the name of freedom, renders the analysis problematic at every stage.

For instance, the several breaks, in an ideological and programmatic sense, in the history of the Dravidian movement has been the subject matter of academic research and polemics in Tamil Nadu. If the DMK’s formation as a political party in 1959 also marked the first ever dilution of the DK’s programme, the birth of the aiadmk in 1972 and its rise to power in the state ushered in an era of what may be called the ‘end of politics’ in the state. These developments, though the result of conscious decisions by the leaders of the day, were equally due to the internal dynamics of the slogans belonging to the Dravidian lexicon. And these dynamics have nothing in common with the ethnic strife that we now witness in various parts of the world.

The author, for some inexplicable reason, refuses to deal with these issues. This is strange because he claims to have watched from close quarters an important phase in the state’s political history – the birth of the aiadmk in 1972. It is baffling that despite this and his knowledge of the state’s political changes, Subramanian has churned out nothing but verbose stuff.

There are several other errors resulting from the author’s inability or rather refusal to see facts in their context. One such glaring mistake, if one may call it so, is his statement that the dmk managed to replace the cpi as the second largest party in the 1957 elections. It is true that the CPI had a large contingent in the Assembly after the 1952 elections. However, it is also a fact that the CPI’s strength in the Assembly was drawn from Malabar and parts of Andhra that were part of the then Madras state and once these areas went to Kerala and Andhra Pradesh, the CPI lost its hold in the Madras Assembly.

Another factual blunder (for one cannot describe it in any other manner) is Subramanian’s statement that until 1947, ‘the Dravidian movement played second fiddle to Congress, which spearheaded India’s anti-colonial movement.’ That someone who has ventured into writing an account of the Dravidian movement could even let a statement like this pass reflects an ignorance of the subject matter. For the DK’s position demanding Dominion Status under the Crown, and not independence, is well-known.

In substance, Narendra Subramanian’s work lacks a clear framework, particularly in the context of the larger questions that currently beg explanation. For instance, the ease with which the major Dravidian parties (those who claim to have inherited the Dravidian movement’s legacy) have been able to align with the bjp, a North Indian party whose ideology is firmly rooted in the Vedic civilization. Similarly, it is strange that Subramanian has nothing to say about the fragmentation of the non-Brahmin legacy manifesting in unabated violence in parts of the state. By not referring to these developments even in a cursory fashion in the course of the book (for caste wars had become a fact of life in the state at least a couple of years before the publication could have been finalised), Subramanian has done injustice to the subject matter of the book.


V. Krishna Ananth


ORIGINS OF NATIONALITY IN SOUTH ASIA: Patriotism and Ethical Government in the Making of Modern India by Christopher Bayly. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1998.


Christopher Bayly’s book, Origins of Nationality, is his third, the earlier two being Rulers, Townsmen and Bazaars and Empire and Information. Bayly is quick to distance himself from the old Cambridge School’s dismissal of Indian nationalism as simply a clash among the elites for the loaves and fishes of office. He expounds a sophisticated version of the continuity thesis where the anti-imperialist edge of Indian nationalism is blunted by rooting it within the older political traditions of 18th century India. The task of the next generation historian is set out as writing a history that would transcend the boundaries between medieval and modern, Company, Crown rule and independent India.

The core of the book is the Radhakrishnan lectures, which comprise the first four chapters and the first 125 pages. The rest is made up of pieces published earlier. The thinness of the argument can be guessed from the author’s somewhat desperate attempt to gain legitimacy for his argument by associating it with people with credibility. This doesn’t quite take off, as it is evident to the reader that they represented something very different in their lives. For instance, he claims that his argument is in the tradition of Radhakrishnan, the great Indian patriot who was rooted in his native Tamil Nadu (and all this while we thought he was an Andhra!). He then goes on to dedicate the book to Sarvepalli Gopal, described as the ‘inheritor of the great liberal tradition of Indian historians’. This is particularly preposterous as Gopal’s scathing attack on the Cambridge School for taking the heart out of Indian nationalism is the stuff legends are made of. It is also inappropriate because Gopal was the founder of the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, one of the bastions of the Indian historical establishment, dominated by Marxist nationalism, which Bayly berates time and again in the book.

The theme is the antecedents or the prehistory of nationalism. The argument is that Indian nationalism is rooted in the old traditional patriotisms. Patriotism is defined as ‘a historically understood community of laws and institutions fortified by a dense network of social communication generally expressing itself through a common language.’ The focus is on ‘Indian forms of social organization and ideologies of good governance that pre-date the full western impact.’ A tall claim is made here: ‘These essays reconsider the origins and periodisation of Indian nationalism from the perspective of late pre-colonial history and the history of early nineteenth century British India.’ It claims to take the origin of nationalism back 50 to 100 years before the 1880s. The contention is that pre-British social relations, sentiments, doctrines and embodied memories influenced the Indian national movement. Words like swadeshabiman, deshbhakti and swadesh-hitkari reflect the solicitude for the land, which was at the heart of the old patriotisms.

The classic example of the pre-colonial Indian patriotism was deemed to be that of the Marathas. We saw here a relatively strong and generalized Indian patriotism, in which an emerging sense of commitment to regional culture coincided with the creation of a regional language and the formation of a relatively strong state. Bayly contends that the Maratha tradition provided a powerful and inclusive set of symbolic resources on which 19th century nationalists could draw. The Mysore sultan, Tipu, drew upon and reinforced a Karnataka regional identity. The reports by the British conquerors of 1799 revealed the active devotion of people of all castes and stations to a sense of Mysore, represented by its institutions and its martyred generalissimo, Tipu Sultan. The link with regionalism is given a positive orientation by calling it patriotism and by locating it between the ‘irresponsible fragment’ and the ‘overbearing centre’.

Bayly’s analysis of the emergence of a consciousness of religious difference traces the growth of communalism back to the early 19th century. He counters Gyan Pandey’s argument that the revolts in Benares in 1807 and 1811 were placed by colonialists in a communal narrative only in order to take attention away from the anti-colonial nature of the anti-taxation movement. Bayly would have it that the riot had both anti-colonial and religious aspects. He also writes about the emergence of a much sharper indigenous rhetoric of religious defence in the 20 years before the rebellion. He is sharply critical of the secular historians for ignoring the role of religious themes in Indian nationalism because of their contemporary concern with religious fundamentalism in politics.

Bayly exposes the hollowness of the subaltern claim that peasant nationalism was homogenous. He points out that many of the peasants possessed ethical and political ideas that would be unacceptable to radical opinion today – affinity toward cow protection, opposition to land reform and contempt for the lower castes.

On surface the argument is a confessedly liberal one – it attacks the modernist critiques of nationalism and the essentialising American Chicago School historiography. Bayly pretends to defend Indian nationalism against what he considers Partha Chatterjee’s dismissive depiction of nationalism as a ‘derivative discourse’. His focus on older patriotisms, he believes, demonstrates that nationalism had strong roots in Indian traditions and was not merely a response of the bourgeois modernizer to western ways of living and thinking. However, by denying the modern content of Indian nationalism, his so-called defence downsizes it by reducing it to its essentialist Indian roots. The strategies employed by the Cambridge School in its different avatars to counter Indian nationalism change ever so often. Bayly’s is only the latest example which provide a deep lineage to nationalism so as to make its principal form, the mass movement headed by the Congress, seem a distant and unimportant cousin.

The most pretentious chapter is the epilogue, with the author holding forth about his own history as a historian. He rightly bemoans the decline of political and economic history in an age where politics and economics are changing the world: ‘The study of a small number of texts written up in post-modernist jargon seems a soft option compared with a closer and more rigorous engagement with these startling changes.’ Somewhat preposterously, on the last page, he claims to have a ‘reluctant penchant’ for Marxism – and this after denouncing the ‘introverted historical establishment’ dominated by Marxist nationalism (whatever that may be). Earlier, he had castigated ‘medieval historiography still dominated by an arid emphasis on surplus extraction and class conflict.’ There are some rare gems, viz., when he speaks of the European (and Bengali) class-based models of social history.

An instance of carelessness typical of western scholarship on India. Bhulabhai Desai, the Congress leader from Bombay, who had his few moments of glory in 1945 during the pact with Liaqat Ali Khan, is reduced to ‘Bullabhai’.


Sucheta Mahajan