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POLITICAL PARTIES AND ELECTIONS IN INDIAN STATES: 1990-2003. Journal of Indian School of Political Economy, Volume 15(1&2), January-June 2003.

THE story of Indian politics in the 1990s is still being written. But it is already possible to assign it two broad titles: the demise of the Congress system and birth of the post-Congress system; the deepening of democracy, or alternatively, its fragmentation.

The first title flags off a narrative that tracks the breakdown of Congress dominance and reconfiguring of the polity. The site is the states. Here, old caste and communal cleavages acquired a new political salience in the ’90s and new faultlines were carved out. The story describes how the grand old party was transformed from a catch-all social coalition to an uncertain rump of left-over constituencies the others had failed to mobilise. It is a fascinating tale that runs the risk of lapsing into a bloodless account of electoral arithmetic. Most election studies of the ’90s unresistingly succumb to this danger.

The second narrative makes an effort to evaluate the turbulence of the ’90s by asking: Did the busy politics of the decade enrich the democratic project, or has it destabilised it? An increasingly domineering perspective promotes governmental stability as the essential hallmark of a political system. It frowns upon the untidy proliferation of political actors. The implicit assumption is: the two party system as it obtains in the West is the ideal type and India’s polity must replicate it. Till it does so, it must be seen as work-in-progress.

The alternative reading – of deepening democracy – is less derivative but in the end, equally undemanding, outlining a simple trajectory of an unmixed empowerment. There was a great churning and an opening of the political space in the ’90s; sections of society that did not have a political voice earlier or were marginalised in the Congress system now have their own political parties, and are autonomous players now. No space is permitted in this sequence for interrogating these players’ agendas.

In a special issue on ‘Political Parties and Elections in Indian States: 1990-2003’ of the Journal of Indian School of Political Economy, editors Yogendra Yadav and Suhas Palshikar also tell a story about the ’90s. But their narration makes a series of significant departures from the stories so far. They situate the decade’s tumult within the bigger picture of electoral politics in Indian states, 1952-2002. They insistently evaluate the ’90s politics – but not for its fit, or lack of it, with received models. Nor is there any uncritical celebration of its peculiarities.

Yadav and Palshikar turn a questioning gaze on the starting point, the Congress system. Looking back, doesn’t its feted ‘catch-all’ character look too natural to be true? Are we missing the many subtle – and unsubtle – ways in which Congress ‘hegemony’ was constructed and maintained? The Congress system was surely propped up by a series of trade-offs. It was as much about exclusion as about inclusion.

Next, they systematically work out a new typology to categorise the various party systems that developed in different Indian states after the demise of the Congress system. Each system is plotted along two dimensions: one, the format of competition and two, the nature of political choice. What is the number of relevant political actors? Is the choice shallow or substantial – does it offer options that could make a real difference to the lives of citizens? Their conclusion is that India’s party system has moved towards a more competitive format – single-party dominance is the exception rather than the rule – but the choice set has not grown. It has, in fact, depleted. Politics in India has journeyed from ‘hegemony’ to ‘convergence’.

This is a provocative proposition: Is politics in India becoming more and more of a contest about less? They offer a reproachful and tremendously sobering answer. The democratic opportunities that opened up after the sudden collapse of Congress hegemony have all been tragically squandered. An intensified electoral political competition could have become an instrument of social transformation, but didn’t. Even as the contest has become vigorous, the choice of policy issues and agendas of governance has shrunk.

A ‘systemic drag’ is produced by the persisting structures of social and economic inequality. Even where a radical choice is born, it is soon in retreat. All competitors ultimately begin to resemble each other in a system that discourages polarisation. Smaller players do not stand much of a chance anyway in the first-past-the-post system. And crucial economic issues had long ago been airlifted out of the political menu in a joint operation mounted by the lead players.

But the choice also seeped out of the political contest in the ’90s due to an inability or unwillingness of the challengers of the Congress system to keep it alive. Content to spar on symbols, they have regularly failed the test of an alternative agenda. Mandal was eventually brought to heel because of the Mandalites, not despite them. The inability of leaders to come together on a common programme, to think larger and in the long term, contributed to their imprisonment within the boundaries of their respective states. Today, Mandal is not the tidal wave of social change it once promised to be. Yadav and Palshikar point out that Mandal was ‘fragmented, localized and thus contained.’

In the Yadav-Palshikar framework, then, the ’90s is the decade that hastened the paradox of spectacular social fragmentation combining with a dramatic policy convergence. As we stand on the cusp of another general election, political events seem to regularly reaffirm their thesis. Remember the friendly matches, just concluded between the Congress and BJP in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi, where the rivals roundly mimicked each other in their operative positions on all crucial issues. Look at the poverty of policy choices framed in multipolar Uttar Pradesh, where the SP and BSP lock horns most furiously over the renaming of districts. Please welcome the newly glamorous art of election management, and the snowballing demand for the Jaitley-Mahajan cookbook of back-room formulas to win elections. When political competition takes place around rival claims of doing the same thing better, the BJP-led front becomes the Congress-led front by another name. And most of the excitement of battle is to be found in party backrooms when it is not being generated by voyeuristic close-ups of the personalities in the race.

The chapters in the volume dealing with the different states contribute lingering images of political closure, providing evidence of the limits of political choice and the oscillatory nature of the vote. In Maharashtra, for instance, where the state-level leadership has continued to derive political support from the rural/agrarian communities while simultaneously catering only to the interests of the urban/industrial and service sectors, the dissonance carries on. In Haryana, where the term ‘party’ encodes two meanings – the established political party and the faction identified with an individual leader – and the voters identify more with the latter. Or the uncertain loyalties in Assam where parties are able to hectically eat into each other’s bases. As they outline the political contest in the ’90s in nine states – Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Assam and Uttar Pradesh these chapters employ a wide array of statistics. In these chapters as well as in the comprehensive statistical supplement at the end, we see a rigorous effort to present the data in politically meaningful classifications.

But in the end, this volume is most valuable for a conceptual frame that focuses insistently on the special burden of democracy in India. Unlike the West, universal adult franchise came to India when a large part of society was yet to be politically mobilised. In India, therefore, as Yadav and Palshikar point out, democratic politics has an extraordinary autonomy: to activate, institute, or mask various kinds of social cleavages. As they insist, it also has a special responsibility to be the vehicle for social transformation, to reinvent the national community in terms that are inclusive, open and fair. To paraphrase Sunil Khilnani, the task of politics in India is to provide a safe house for conflicts to play out in non-destructive ways, and in ways that make politics rich and sustainable.

But for the abdication in the ’90s, could things have happened differently? How can we sidestep the same closures in the future? The post-90s question has been systematically articulated in this volume. In the concluding essay, Yadav and Palshikar urge that the onus to search for answers is on students of comparative politics. They must be provoked.

Vandita Mishra


KASHMIR: Roots of Conflict, Paths to Peace by Sumantra Bose. Vistaar Publications, New Delhi, 2003.

‘WHENEVER things threatened to fall apart during our negotiations – and they did on many occasions – we would stand back and remind ourselves that if negotiations broke down the outcome would be a bloodbath of unimaginable proportions, and that after the bloodbath we would have to sit down again and negotiate with each other. The thought always sobered us up and we persisted, despite many setbacks. You negotiate with your enemies, not your friends.’1

The ongoing ethnic conflict based on the demand for what people of Kashmir call azadi, the right to self-determination, has ‘come to present such a grave threat to South Asia’s peace and to global security in the early twenty-first century.’ For a discernable observer like Bose, any solution to the ‘protracted confrontation’ must take into consideration ‘the sovereignty and territorial integrity concerns of the countries embroiled in the dispute,’ besides ‘the popular aspirations to self-rule as well as conflicting loyalties and allegiances within Jammu and Kashmir.’

A reading of the ever-burgeoning literature on the Kashmir conflict, including this significant work, enables us to identify some of these concerns and the possible solutions being contemplated. First the dominant concerns. For Pakistan, Kashmir has always remained an obsession. One can broadly refer to four factors to explain why Kashmir runs ‘in the blood of Pakistan’, as the political and military leadership never tires of saying. First, Kashmir has always been treated by a significant section of both the classes and masses in Pakistan as the ‘unfinished agenda’ of Partition. Second, the entrenched position of an oligarchy comprising of military, bureaucracy and politicians has led to a ‘political economy of defence’ in Pakistan. Kashmir provides the very basis of the legitimization to the idea of a militarized and increasingly authoritarian Pakistan torn by ethnic strife.

Third, the growing Islamization of Pakistan since the Zia regime has created a significant constituency of Islamist forces funded with oil money, not only among the masses but more importantly in the ruling stratum, including the military elite. For these forces a ‘Muslim’ Kashmir under a ‘Hindu’ India remains an anathema. Fourth, even among the moderates in Pakistan, the painful memory of Partition and the subsequent creation of Bangladesh serve as examples of excesses at the hands of the Indian state.

If Kashmir is the ‘jugular vein’ of Pakistan, then for India, besides being the ‘shining example’ as well as the ‘litmus test’ of Indian secularism, it is also the ‘core’ of Indian nationalism. Kashmir, ‘a rose in the Indian bouquet’ has come to symbolize the preservation of absolute, indivisible sovereignty and political integrity of the Indian state. Second, Kashmir also raises concern for India because of the heavy costs both in terms of loss of human lives and resources. From 1989 to 2002, between 40,000 (official Indian estimates) and 80,000 (claimed by the Hurriyat Conference, a coalition of pro-azadi and pro-Pakistan groups) civilians, Indian security personnel and insurgents died in the violence. The economic costs run into at least Rs 10, 000 crore on an annual basis (directly for fighting the internal war and indirectly for manning the heights of Kargil and Siachen).

Third, it is increasingly being asserted by policy-makers that a peaceful solution to Kashmir problem would strengthen the idea of regional cooperation, thus charting a road map to greater investment and regional cooperation. Fourth, in the present world where democratization and celebration of identities and human rights have gone hand in hand with the processes of globalization, India struggles to present herself as the world’s largest and most diverse democracy.

Let us now very briefly mention the ways being suggested by the ‘Kashmir experts’ and consider their feasibility in providing a ‘strategic roadmap to peace’ in the form of establishing the legitimate borders of political community. Most of these ‘definitive solutions’ fall into one of the two broad categories, aptly described by Bose as plebiscitary or partitionist. The first route, supported by Pakistan and the pro-independence forces, is to settle the sovereignty question ‘in accordance with the will of the people expressed through the democratic method of a free and impartial plebiscite under the auspices of the United Nations.’ India, however, rejects the plebiscite as irrelevant, obsolete and unnecessary, as the people of Jammu and Kashmir ‘have exercised their democratic rights repeatedly.’

A second and third way can be in the form of India and Pakistan either granting independence to Jammu and Kashmir or India simply handing over the territory of Kashmir to Pakistan. Neither of these solutions are feasible. The independence option would be vehemently opposed by the classes and masses of both states whereas the later option would not find favour with both India as well as the pro-azadi segments in the two parts of Jammu and Kashmir. The emergent Hindutva cultural nationalists already warn that any ‘second partition’ would be disastrous for the world’s second largest Muslim population that resides in India. A fourth option, mooted originally during the Simla talks in 1971, is to convert the existing ‘line of control’ into an international border. Growing religious fundamentalism and militarisation of civil society in Pakistan rules out this option even when India seems willing to consider it. In any case it does not address the sovereignty question within the contested territory.

A fifth option aimed at keeping peace on the de facto border and ensuring respect for human rights has been to revitalize the United Nations Military Observer Group, formed in the wake of the 1949 Karachi agreement and establish what the US based Council on Foreign Relations and Kashmir Study Group reports call a bilateral Joint Border Security Group. This option runs aground India’s consistent stand to keep away from the UN, as there is a distinct recognition that involving the UN in Kashmir by Prime Minister Nehru was a blunder. A sixth and a more promising option can be to integrate non-Muslim dominated Jammu and Ladakh into India and share sovereignty over a united Valley with a soft border. The idea of softening the border is being pushed as a humanitarian initiative that would enable the divided families and villages to reaffirm their age old ties. This option can be worked out by mutual consent of both the countries, paving the way for a dialogue between ethnic (non-religious) communities across the Line of Actual Control.

But the pertinent question is whether it would be acceptable to Pakistan, and more importantly to the pro-azadi segment of the population? What about the Islamist forces enjoying relative autonomy vis-à-vis the state in Pakistan? A seventh and the most ‘dubious’ of all solutions is to reorganize the state on the basis of religion, as demanded by diverse quarters such as RSS, KSG and the People’s Initiative for Peace and Unity. The idea was originally advanced in Sir Owen Dixon’s 1950 proposal of ‘regional plebiscites’. These groups have been urging the GOI to create a separate Muslim state of Kashmir incorporating the Muslim dominated areas of Jammu regions like Doda and Poonch-Rajouri. The Hindu-dominated districts of Jammu and the Buddhist-dominated district of Leh are proposed as autonomous political units. Such a formulation only foregrounds religious identity and shows a disregard for the immense ethnic and linguistic variety in the state.

An eighth option, revived recently, and originally mooted during the talks between the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan in 1965, involves the Chenab replacing the existing line of actual control as the dividing line between India and Pakistan – the right bank of Chenab going to Pakistan and the left bank to India. Accepting this would mean that the entire Valley would go to Pakistan without taking into consideration the view of its political community. While referring to Kashmiri regional patriotism and aspirations to political self-rule based on a collective memory of historical subjugation and subsequent breach of contract by the Indian state, Bose observes that the pro-independence segment far outstrips the pro-Pakistan and pro-India segments.

Ninth, an ‘outright’ solution advocated by the ultra right in both countries, has been the building up of a decisive military superiority. Such a measure is discounted by strategic analysts primarily because of the nuclear power status of the two countries, incidentally among the biggest importers of arms in the world. The tenth relates to the mediatory role of the US, EU or UN on the pattern of the US role in Israel-Palestine and Ireland disputes or the roles of Norway and Japan in the case of Tamil insurgency in Sri Lanka. The argument is that in a unipolar world the only powerful outsider in the region, the USA, ‘cannot be denied regional access and the sooner Indian policy acknowledges what most other regions understood a long time ago, the better.’

Pertinently, the most intense involvement of third parties, i.e. USA and UK, in the search for a solution of the Kashmir issue took place in 1962-63 following the China-India war. It was a colossal failure. After that India has consistently rejected the role of a third party over the Kashmir dispute despite such demand coming from Pakistan, as well as an increasingly concerned West still reliving the horror of September 11. As for track two and three diplomacy – advocating people to people contact or back-channel discussion entered into mostly by retired armed forces and government personnel, the intelligentsia and most recently by the parliamentarians of the two countries – it has not had any significant effect except for providing photo opportunities.

Even a cursory look at the above-mentioned concerns and possible solutions leads us to agree with Bose that the Kashmir conflict at its core is a ‘dispute over sovereignty… defined by the mutually reinforcing intersection of domestic and international sources.’ The two state-centred claims to sovereignty that are ‘maximalist’ in nature ensure the invisibility of the people of the Valley in the ongoing territorialized discourse on Kashmir. Keenly aware of ‘the entrenched positions and antagonisms’ that are complemented, and compounded, by ‘sharply different preferences on the sovereignty question within the contested territory,’ Bose, the pragmatist, makes a remarkable effort to out-line a multidimensional framework for peace building that ‘acknowledges and accommodates all of the competing national (and quasi-national) identities and agendas, and negates and rejects none.’

Drawing lessons from his indepth studies of similar inter-state sovereignty disputes over territory in Northern Ireland and Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bose suggests that the sovereignty and territorial integrity concerns of the two hostile neighbours must be respected, but so should ‘the popular aspirations to self-rule as well as conflicting loyalties and allegiances within Jammu and Kashmir.’ Drawing attention to the multiple meanings and a fluidity that associates the term azadi – from freedom to autonomy – Bose calls for foregrounding the ‘democratic rights to participation, representation, and self-government.’ Such a measure ensuring political dignity would be welcome to all the three segments in the state professing rival notions of national self-determination. With the two contending states agreeing to accommodate and compromise with ‘a subtly reframed, non-maximalist yet substantial meaning of azadi’, a honourable compromise between state power and popular aspirations to azadi can be reached, as for instance by granting substantial autonomy to both parts of Kashmir (as was the case in Indian part of Kashmir before 1953). Any such agreement should have the ratification of the parliaments of both countries, as well as of any other relevant non-state actors’ bodies. Subsequently, it could also be put to popular referenda, conducted separately in the Indian and Pakistan parts of Kashmir. By insisting that such a peace building framework would not impinge upon the contending states to formally renounce their established positions and declaratory ideological stances, Bose shows his understanding of the inability of the two states ‘to transcend the sediments of history that are weighing them down’ and the fact that Kashmir has been transformed symbolically ‘into the cornerstone of the nationhood of both countries.’

The success of this meticulously researched book lies in revealing that it is the statist perception of ‘national interest’ and not the people of both parts of Jammu and Kashmir that invariably receives foremost attention in the security-centric ‘mainstream’ discourse on conflict in Kashmir. Recounting the tragic story of Kashmir from the perspective of the peoples of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh, Bose reiterates that for realizing a ‘new architecture for the subcontinent’ there is critical need to develop a political culture in the two countries that can understand ‘that sometimes nationalism is the enemy of the national interest.’ For the purpose, Bose could very well have referred to the philosophical notion of Kashmiriyat which preaches a humanist and eclectic basis of community on the one hand and foregrounds the liberal and non-dogmatic attitude of the people towards religion, on the other.

Finally, Bose succeeds in making us recognize that the Kashmir ‘problem’ is more a problem between the peoples of both Indian and Pakistan parts of Kashmir asking for azadi and the contending states of India and Pakistan rather than merely between the latter two.

Ashutosh Kumar



1. Nelson Mandela reflecting on the transition to a multiracial democracy in South Africa, 1997, quoted in the book.


THE AFTERMATH OF PARTITION IN SOUTH ASIA by Tai Yong Tan and Gyanesh Kudaisya. Routledge Studies in the Modern History of Asia, Routledge, London, 2000.

THIS book seeks to establish the centrality of partition in the making of modern South Asia. Critical of writings which treat partition as a step to ultimate ‘nationhood’, the authors demonstrate that Partition in itself has contributed to a host of significant social, economic, developmental and political transformations. Transcending the boundaries of nation states, their treatment cuts across the standard debate in partition studies on its ‘high politics’ and ‘subaltern effects’. In a contextualising and broad-ranging introduction, Kudaisya covers the writings of administrators, geographers, professional historians, literary figures and cinematographic forays into the events surrounding partition. The gradual opening up of new archival material, and research methodologies has enabled the democratisation of writing this history.

In ‘The enigma of arrival’ Kudaisya describes various celebrations of independence that were organised by political parties, church communities, students and volunteers in British India and the Princely states. This includes Savarkar’s call for a boycott of the independence day. The desires of Hindu supremacists for the prohibition of cow slaughter, for devanagri as the lingua franca and for India to be renamed Hindustan are countered, in some measure, by the voice of M.K. Gandhi. The anguish of religiously defined minorities in India and Pakistan is articulated. However, the meanings of independence are submerged in the detailed discussion of the rituals of independence.

Kudaisya finds it ‘extraordinary’ that in the protracted negotiations between the British, the Congress and the Muslim League, there was little debate on the issue of citizenship and the status of minorities in the new nations (75). It almost appears as if the debate on citizenship or the meanings of swarajya is sought at the moment of partition, a moment which was bereft of creative thinking. I submit that it is precisely this debate on citizenship and the rights of minorities, which had for its audiences the newspaper reading public of mofussil towns and large cities for the preceding two decades, that was rendered unfinished by the decision to partition. It was the inability to find a settlement to the problem of minorities, religiously defined, that has made partition the central problematiqué in post colonial South Asia. Kudaisya relates the dilemma of minority rights to partition violence with a refreshing insight:

‘Following the outbreak of large-scale disturbances in the Punjab the violence which erupted there and in other parts of the subcontinent was portrayed as "religious strife", rather than as an assertion by the people of their right of residence, or an affirmation on their part of their natural citizenship to a land where they had been born or raised’ (75-76).

In a move distinctly different from recent offerings on the same period, Kudaisya does not linger on tedious descriptions of this violence.

The discussion on the Radcliffe Award opens with Auden’s famous poem: ‘Unbiased at least he was when he arrived on his mission/ Having never set eyes on this land he was called to partition/ Between two peoples fanatically at odds/ With their different diets and incompatible gods.’ The diets were mostly the same and the gods not always incompatible, but the leaders making territorial claims did indeed appear to be fanatically at odds in their perceptions of what was due to them. We learn that Jinnah had initially proposed a boundary commission of three impartial non-Indians to be appointed by the United Nations (83), which was unacceptable to the Secretary of State – who did not welcome international intervention – and to the Congress, which would brook no delays. Radcliffe, we are told, expected that his award would be negotiable and in the manner of an improvised boundary. Since he was also in charge of the Bengal Boundary Commission, he absented himself from all the sittings of the Punjab Boundary Commission that were held in the last ten days of July 1947.

The demands, counter-demands, positions and trade-offs by representatives of the Congress, the Hindu Mahasabha, the Muslim League and the Sikhs reveal the little weight of religious identity in the demands for greater and valuable territory. The effects of this rapidly drawn boundary were most immediately felt by the Sikhs who were split down the middle. Tai Yong Tan tracks the various alliances forged by the Sikhs with the Unionists, the Congress and the Muslim League in the 1940s, revealing the contingent and fluid nature of the Pakistan demand. The Sikhs’ post-partition predicament finds utterance in their demand for a Punjabi speaking suba. With some of their most important pilgrimage sites left in West Punjab, and an apparent denial of their political importance by their erstwhile supporters, the British, the Sikhs felt particularly short-changed in east Punjab. Here, the centrality of partition in the development of a ‘national’ consciousness among Sikhs is marked.

In economic development, too, partition has left a lasting imprint. The next chapter marks the path from displacement to development among refugees from the canal colonies of western Punjab, Sind and the North West Frontier Province. Relying on newspaper reports, Government of India publications and the writings of M.S. Randhawa, then Director General of Rehabilitation in East Punjab, Kudaisya shows that it required tenacity of purpose, imagination and sensitivity to fit refugees used to a different land, irrigation infrastructure and lifestyle into the relatively stifled conditions of East Punjab. Refugees from particular districts were shepherded into specific areas in east Punjab to avoid overcrowding in the border districts. Food loans, land allotment schemes and the East Punjab Holdings Consolidation and Fragmentation Act of 1948 helped cater to the short and long term needs of villagers and effectively prepared the countryside for the Green Revolution of the 1960s.

The political will that shaped the rehabilitation process in east Punjab is thrown into sharper relief when juxtaposed against rehabilitation in east Bengal. The disdain with which several flows of refugees were treated through the 1950s is epitomised in the story of those banished to Dandakaranya, a mineral rich rocky region which includes part of Orissa and Madhya Pradesh. Here the refugees were compelled to subsist in pathetic conditions with little provision for drinking water, medical facilities or urban and semi-urban employment (156). Bengalis accustomed to fish culture, paddy cultivation and irrigated lands struggled in these ‘dark forests’. They took to other kinds of employment where possible, many leaving in the 1960s and ’70s. The Communist party, which depended on refugee interests for its electoral base, discouraged them from moving to Dandakaranya in the 1950s. But, once in government in 1978, it sent them back when they sought to return en masse to Calcutta. Kudaisya concludes with a discussion of ‘ethnic’ stereotyping: while it is commonplace to regard Punjabi refugees as enterprising and Bengalis as parochial, it is the bureaucratic and governmental attitude towards rehabilitation that is so at variance in the two states, leading to such different results.

Crossing the boundaries of nation states, Kudaisya tracks the fortunes of seven South Asian capital cities: Dhaka, Calcutta, Lahore, Karachi, Islamabad, Chandigarh and Delhi. The growth and, in some cases, the very conception of these cities grew from the exigencies posed by the birth of a new nation state/states and the demographic changes imposed by refugee flows. The imprint of cultural, bureaucratic and military elites is felt in the making of these cities, in tandem with the post-partition histories of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The discussion of Karachi, in particular, reflects the changing social base of Pakistan’s ruling elite and the fortunes of its Muhajirs. Lahore, on the other hand, is treated sketchily: the discussion of partition violence repeats well-known facts without elaborating on the social bases of violence.

In ‘Punjab and the Making of Pakistan’, Tai Yong Tan contends that the civil-military-bureaucratic combine created by the British in rural west Punjab to enable recruitment for the world wars was responsible for the very survival of Pakistan during the chaos that accompanied partition. A convincing argument, it excludes, however, the influence of political parties organised along religious lines which sought to slice through the comfortable confluence of interests that held together the Unionist party in the late 1930s. This treatment thus glosses over the tensions created by urban interests in using the minority card to gain electoral weightage equivalent to that enjoyed by Muslim minorities in other provinces. Not germane to the viability of Pakistan as territorial state, the politics of Punjab’s urban minorities is crucial to understanding the influence of ‘Pakistan’ as a conceivable idea and necessity. Urban considerations, I believe, did not always remain marginal to the politics of the Punjab (213).

The concluding chapter brings together several unresolved problems created by partition. Kashmir, the nuclear contest and arms race, water-sharing arrangements between India and Bangladesh, Sikhs and Sindhis in the South Asian diaspora, Muhajirs in Pakistan, Muslims in India, Biharis in Bangladesh and the peace initiatives between the people of India and Pakistan are discussed fleetingly. This chapter mirrors a difficulty with the overall organisation of the book. Although rich in detail on the consequences of partition, the book is not held together by an argument. This makes it a fascinating but fractured read. A fuller discussion of a single issue, like that of acquiring nuclear potential, or Kashmir, might sug gest the extent to which the events of partition dulled the significance of swaraj with a subsequent emphasis on projecting a national identity marked by certain homogenous features, a quality of jingoism and exclusivity.

On the other hand, this discussion of the impact of partition at the economic, demographic and social planes across nation states is an important intervention in a field that seems increasingly trapped in a posture of victimhood vis-à-vis the community or the state. This movement across frontiers and the breadth of themes represented has necessitated an enormous amount of field work. End notes demonstrate meticulous research in Delhi, Lahore, London and less-visited record offices in Jhelum, Rawalpindi and Shahpur districts. In bringing partition to centrestage, the book suggests that it is partition and not the fact of independence that has transformed the lives of Punjabis, Bengalis, Kashmiris, Sindhis, Biharis and Indian Muslims.

Neeti Nair


RELIGIOUS CONVERSION IN INDIA: Modes, Motivations and Meanings edited by Rowena Robinson and Sathianathan Clarke. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2003.

CERTAIN issues become famous only after they become heavily politicized and newsworthy objects of interest. In India, the issue of conversion has frequently gained interest due to its politicization. Under such conditions, it is more the norm than exception that articles and research conducted on such issues is guided by political rather than academic interests.

In an era when the issue of conversion has been marked by heated exchange between different points of this multi-sided problematic, it is unusual to come across a truly academic work that pools together a large body of studies and researches, even if a little too historical. Most academicians would immediately try to find out the credentials of the authors for conducting such a work. Rowena Robinson did her Ph.D. on popular Catholicism in Goa while Sathianathan Clarke is a Christian theologian with Dalit concerns based in Tamil Nadu. In their introduction, they raise some crucial points about the relation between sociology and religion in India:

‘Notions of sacred geography play a part in determining the relationship between specific caste communities and their locatedness/rootedness in the rural landscape’ (p. 4);

‘There needs to be much more analysis of the relationship between the legitimate social status that different communities are assigned through temple-based rituals and the manner in which conversion is utilized to subvert such socio-cultural conscriptions’ (p. 4);

‘There is a certain convention that governs various religious communities’ social, economic and political clout in relation to the perceived status of these respective religions’ (pp. 4-5); and

‘There exist intricate frameworks that demonstrate the politicization of religious capital to valorize and devalue religious identities’ (p. 5).

Given the above, there is a growing need to understand the process and reasons for conversion from the viewpoint of local areas and communities as well as from the point of view of individuals. It is this need that the book addresses.

The first section of the book deals with conversions to Islam. According to Robinson (p. 24) the ‘procedural obligations to be fulfilled for acceptance into the new faith were quite minimal’ to begin with. As a result many were led into conversions. It becomes clear, through various examples, that forced conversions by Muslims were rare and did not form a part of a majority of the Muslim communities in India. The notion seems to have subsequently gained importance as a part of colonial mythology probably in response to growing Hindu fundamentalism (p. 29). There were, however, Muslim groups who advocated conversions, like the Nizari Ismaili model of conversion in South Asia described by Dominique-Sila Khan. Most religions survive ‘by adapting themselves to various circumstances and contexts without losing their essence and forgetting their aims.’ This shows the potential of religions towards universalization even within a particular system of beliefs and practices (p. 49).

In Kerala, a dynamic and egalitarian Islamic mercantile society interacted with an exceptionally conservative version of Hindu caste society (an older and Islamic version of liberation theology) according to the version given by Stephen F. Dale. He claims that a research methodology which goes into the details of locale, time, places and individuals can take concepts of conversion from the general to the local and the individual.

For Bengal, Richard Eaton shows how conquering Muslim rulers believed themselves to be superior to the locals, even punishing their own officials for forcibly converting the local populace. They grew by occupying newly untenanted areas and setting up mosques into newer-settled regions. Despite these barriers against conversion, the number of such converts to Islam grew in the same period. Yoginder Sikand shows how Arya Samaj proselytization (shuddhi) led to reaction from Muslims, including the formation of the Deendar Anjuman by Sayyed Siddiq Hussain in 1886 at Balumpet, Gurmatkal taluq, Gulbarga district, earlier a part of the Hyderabad Nizam’s dominions.

The Arya Samaj campaign of shuddhi received a further boost after the Mappila revolt in 1921 when many Hindus were reportedly forced into converting to Islam. The numbers converted were, however, vastly exaggerated. Earlier Muslims kept a flexible border with others of different religions. However, growing antipathy and reconversion to Hinduism seems to have forced a better policing of religious boundaries and a deeper understanding was sought to be imparted to all Muslims so that they were not so easily tempted to reconvert. Sikand claims that this background explains the legacy of opposition and hatred between religions in India (p. 117).

The next section has papers relating to conversions to Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism. Paul Dundas describes converts to Jainism in various parts of India in the early period. While discussing conversion of Raikas to Jainism, he makes no mention of the tribal religions, their relations with Hindus and other details. Further, the paper focuses more on processes than causes. Louis E. Fenech analyses the various forms of conversion of Sikhs over time and shows that the present concept of religious exclusivity did not exist in the past. Torkel Brekke sees conversions in Buddhism as a template to understand how people cope with religious change. He claims that once people become wanderers as the Buddha had become, they were more easily able to cope with conversions to Buddhism as well as conversions within Buddhism, from one sect to another. Many experienced no change in lifestyle. As a result, the concept of conversion itself seems to be inappropriate. Such conversions also depended upon individual volitions and charismatic leaders who provided the necessary impetus towards conversion. The final paper in this section by Gary Tartakov stresses the ‘typical’ nature of B.R. Ambedkar’s form of conversion to Buddhism and the Navayana Diksha as a kind of liberation theology with the idea of creating equality in society. This is highlighted by Ambedkar’s own systematic enumeration of the rules such converts should follow.

The next section deals with transformations of castes and tribes. Saurabh Dube and Ishita Banerjee Dube engage with the caste and sect transformations of the satnamis in Orissa and other versions of Mahima Dharma and Biswanath Baba. David Hardiman details the nature of conversion among the Bhils through Govind Bechar’s movement. A specific instance of the Bhagat movements among the Bhils, it was only later appropriated and depicted by Hindu nationalists as a freedom movement by the Bhils. Later Gandhians subverted this movement in order to convert animistic Bhils to Hinduism. The persecution of the sect was occasioned by a conflict with Brahmins and Rajputs of princely states. The movement was also feared as being insurrectionary by the British. However, the real difference between tribal animism and Hindu religion, though nebulous, is never properly explored by the author.

The last section deals with conversions to Christianity. Clarke details the two major functions of religion as being integrative (‘offers to its adherents an orientation of meaning and framework for collective living’) and creating a framework of resistance (‘the subversive inclination of religion’) for its converts. Further, a religion becomes enriched by the subjective additions of local cultures within it. However, he stresses that the psychology of converts needs to be studied in more detail, a move that might please sociologists, anthropologists and theologians. This is exemplified through examples from Goa by Rowena Robinson, Tamil Nadu by Clarke, Punjab by John C.B. Webster and the North East Indian region by Frederick S. Downs.

According to Webster, such studies must be:

a) convert-centred, studies of what converts hoped to become and what happened to them after conversion. Downs (p. 386) agrees when he argues that ‘it is from the perspective of the people, not the agents that acted upon them, that an understanding of the conversion movement must be found;’

b) the context of conversion is crucial to understanding change and that the context is different in each case;

c) the inward and outward process of conversion has to be studied. The outward process of religious practice, behaviour, relationships and socio-economic context are most often studied. The inward process is more difficult to captive; and

d) it is a long-term process. The nature of the follow-up is to be noted. Generations may gain or lose its various aspects. Hence, a study of conversion through generations is crucial.

For those researching this area, the book is a historically ‘thick’ work marked by copious detail of theory, perspectives and techniques useful for further study. It also reminds the ordinary reader to go beyond newspaper articles and glib speeches and examine the reality of the situation, to go beyond the slick generalities of political speeches to the everyday life of religions over the years. Perhaps, this diversity will help in creating a better understanding than any other unitary approach. As Sathianathan Clarke comments:

‘Religions thus yield themselves to be discreetly and deliberately dismantled, relocated and reassembled. Religions are not finished products; they constantly hand themselves over to their adherents. They are susceptible to continuously being crafted into meaning-giving and meaning-making symbolic dwelling places. In this logical framework religious conversion can be posited as a community initiated attempt to create transmutations and transfigurations in its own God-world-human symbol system. Religious contours are redrawn without an explicit taking leave of one and entering into another unitary and organized religion’ (p. 217).

Abhik Ghosh


GLOBALIZATION UNMASKED: Imperialism in the 21st Century by James Petras and Henry Veltmeyer. Zed Books, London, 2002.

AS the authors aver, ‘Globalization is at the centre of diverse intellectual and political agendas, raising crucial questions about what is widely considered to be the fundamental dynamic of our time – an epoch-defining set of changes that is radically transforming social and economic relations and institutions in the 21st century.’

Globalization is not global integration, turning the world in to what is often touted as a ‘global village’. On the contrary, it represents an insidious ‘usurpation’ agenda for the global hegemony of the Master World led by the US. The recent Bush-Blair blitzkrieg in Iraq to disarm and destroy weapons of mass destruction of a nation, armless and defenceless by any international reckoning, by a reckless use of weapons of mass destruction stockpiled by these two countries is one horrendous manifestation of this fast unfolding ‘usurpation’ by the artful ‘globalizers’. Underlying and integral to globalization are its artful charades and chicanery.

As both a description of widespread, epoch-defining developments and a prescription for action, it (globalization) has achieved a virtual hegemony and so is presented with an air of inevitability that disarms the imagination and prevents thought of and action towards a systemic alternative – towards another, more just social and economic order. The ‘inevitability’ of globalization is a critical concern. But a more critical issue, perhaps, is what the discourse on globalization is designed to hide and obfuscate: the form taken by imperialism in the current, increasingly worldwide capitalist system for organizing economic production and society.

The authors dismiss the above bogey of ‘inevitability’ – embedded in the burgeoning literature on globalization, especially from ‘establishment economists’, who have conjured up a seemingly fatalistic global agreement that it just happened and everyone must adapt to it – as part of yet another sinister imperialist agenda and lay bare with characteristic candour what the discourse on globalization is designed to obfuscate.

Of the eleven chapters of the book, the first three (‘Globalization’ or ‘Imperialism’?; Globalization: A Critical Analysis; and Globalization as Ideology) are on the ideological dimensions of globalization. Together they expose the class project behind globalization, namely ‘the attempt to obfuscate rather than accurately describe what is going on worldwide,’ and ‘the attempt to throw an ideological veil over the economic interests of an emerging class of transnational capitalists.’

The authors argue that globalization is not a structural part of the capitalist system, it is instead an ideological smokescreen used to divert attention away from the resurgence of imperialist powers. Accordingly, they contend that globalization is little more than imperialism in a new form. Seeing it as an ideological tool used for prescription rather than accurate description, they contextually counterpoise it with the term imperialism, which according to them has considerably greater descriptive value and explanatory power.

Using this concept, the network of institutions that define the structure of the new global economic system are viewed not in structural terms but as intentional and contingent, subject to the control of individuals who represent and seek to advance the interests of a new international capitalist class. This class is formed on the basis of institutions that include a complex of some 37,000 transnational corporations (TNCs), the operating units of global capitalism, the bearers of capital and technology and the major agents of the new imperial order. These TNCs are not the only organizational bases of this order, which also includes the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other international financial institutions (IFIs) that constitute the self-styled ‘international financial community’ and ‘the global financial network’.

In addition, the New Order is made up of a host of global strategic planning and policy forums such as the Group of Seven (G-7), the Trilateral Commission (TC), and the World Economic Forum (WEF); and the state apparatuses in countries at the centre of the system that have been restructured so as to serve and respond to the interests of global capital. All of these institutions form an integral part of the new imperialism – the new system of ‘global governance’.

As the new class project is admittedly for creating conditions for the free play of greed, class interests and profit making, the action goes well beyond what the authors have termed ‘renovation’. Nevertheless, they have brought out through an array of sources how this class project, especially its structural adjustment programmes, impacts on developed, developing, and the least developed countries.

How this project has been put into practice in Latin America, on the periphery of what has been termed the ‘world capitalist system’, is examined in chapter 4 (Capitalism at the Beginning of a New Millennium: Latin America and Euro-American Imperialism) by focusing on the machinations of Euro-American imperialism at the beginning of the new millennium. Privatization is a key component of the neo-liberal programme of structural reforms and policies designed to create optimal conditions for global capital, freed from the restrictions and regulations under which it has been operating. Its role is examined at length in chapter 5 (The Labyrinth of Privatization).

The political dimension of neo-liberal capitalism and its imperialist project is examined in chapter 6 (Democracy and Capitalism: An Uneasy Relationship). Chapters 7 and 8 (Cooperation for Development, and NGOs in the Service of Imperialism) ‘focus on widespread efforts to give the structural adjustment (and globalization) process a social dimension and human face: a more equitable form of community-based and participatory "development" based on the decentralization of government, the strengthening of "civil society", and the agency of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). At issue here are three modalities of economic development: (1) process insertion – electoral, globalization, modernization, development, etc. – by the state; (2) project implementation by NGOs, in partnership with central governments and international development and financial institutions; and (3) anti-systemic struggle by social movements.’ These chapters also review the dynamics of thought and practice associated with each of these alternative approaches and expose the hidden agenda behind the community-based and local forms of ‘participatory development’ that constitute the ‘new paradigm’ of development.

In this context, chapter 8 (NGOs in the Service of Imperialism) provides an incisive, important and interesting critique of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) which are widely viewed today by the social (versus political) Left, as well as governments and proponents of ‘another development’, as the most appropriate and effective agency of economic change. As the authors argue, the agency of the NGOs reflects the World Bank’s ‘cooperation for development’ and partnership strategy, exposing thereby the local face of imperialism.

The brief conclusion of this chapter, ‘Towards a Theory of NGOs’ is particularly important in unmasking globalization: ‘In structural terms the proliferation of NGOs reflects the emergence of a new petit bourgeois as distinct from the ‘old’ shopkeepers, free professionals and the "new" public employee groups… Politically the NGOs fit into the new thinking of imperialist strategists. While the IMF, World Bank and TNCs work with domestic elites at the top to pillage the economy, the NGOs engage in a complementary activity at the bottom, neutralizing and fragmenting the burgeoning discontent that results from the savaging of the economy… The NGOs have co-opted most of those who used to be the "free-floating" intellectuals who would abandon their class origins and join popular movements… The fundamental question is whether a new generation of organic intellectuals can emerge from these radical social movements, avoid the NGO temptation and become integral members of the next revolutionary wave.’

Chapters 9 and 10 (The US Empire and Narco-Capitalism, and The Practice of US Hegemony: Right-Wing Strategy) examine some of the complex political dynamics involved in the implementation of the globalization project. Once again, Latin America provides the context, illuminating a process that takes different forms in different parts of the world.

The concluding chapter (Socialism in an Age of Imperialism) provides a socialist perspective on the globalization project and the imperialist designs of capitalists in the U.S. and Europe. At issue here is the neo-liberal model of capitalist development and, across the threshold of a new millennium, the need to reconstruct a socialist alternative. The chapter also reviews possible conditions required for a socialist project in an age of imperialism.

The book is rich in scope and sweep and is perhaps one of a kind. The logically and thematically linked chapter titles and sub-titles themselves provide an overview of the book. Seen against the transmogrification of material and human resources development into a Frankenstein – which one can only hope will, true to the mythology, destroy its creator – this book, a powerful blast from the Left, merits great attention from all those who wish to see development with a human face. It is an active search for an alternative – a renewed, democratic, and revolutionary socialist vision that is capable of uniting people, and of being recognized by political movements that are committed to finding realistic strategies and achievable goals.

The authors, sociologists for a change, are last year’s winners (for this book) of the R.S. Kenny Prize for Marxist and Labour/Left Studies. Their book, as Noam Chomsky rightly observed, is a contribution of unusual value for those who hope not only to understand the world, but also to change it, drastically, for the better.

P. Radhakrishnan


SONIA: A Biography by Rasheed Kidwai. Penguin-Viking, New Delhi, 2003.

THE persona of Sonia Gandhi – as a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family, as a private citizen and as the leader of India’s principal opposition party, the Congress – has evoked strong enquiries. Her provenance and what she represents has often been subject to vigorous political scrutiny. In the public mind her image has waxed and waned between a figure of mystery whose political motives have seldom been enunciated convincingly and a heroic maiden who stands between the forces of political and social radicalism and chauvinism and the future of India.

In such a milieu, any biography of an individual who has been described as ‘a national obsession’ merited a more thorough and less journalistic appraisal of her life and times. Sadly, Kidwai’s book is unnecessarily anecdotal and represents the triumph of a mediocre journalism over a style befitting a subject like Sonia Gandhi. The resultant work is unable to connect reality with reputation or indeed make any valid distinction between posture and personality.

Writing in the London Review of Books, Patrick O’Brien described what must amount to a considered guide to biographical writing. ‘The analysis of processes, institutions and the lasting achievements of significant individuals is what historians should be concerned with; and unless important outcomes can be attributed in large measure to the ideas and leadership exercised by prominent politicians, then their lives, however deeply researched and readable, contribute very little to our understanding of the history of government and politics.’

The problem with this particular work is that neither is it well-researched nor particularly readable. The ’90s were, arguably, the most radical and volatile decade that Indian politics has witnessed. Juxtapositioning events and characters in this period requires a mastery over the details of the occurrences. Subsequently, the author should have been able to connect the various themes at play with the person under study. Yet the Rao years (1991-1996), which left a lasting impact on the Indian National Congress are despatched within 23 pages. Infuriatingly, for anyone concerned with a more serious assessment of Sonia Gandhi’s political thinking and the internal political relationships within her party, the author has rarely attributed his quotations and information credibly. Thus we have to make do with attributions ranging from, ‘Stated by those present on the occasion’ to ‘Based upon off the record conversation with those who were in the know and closely followed the events then.’ More forthcoming notes and less secrecy about his sources may have made this semi-biographical work both richer and more interesting.

The imagery in the book is clumsy and sometimes crude. To describe the Congress leadership as ‘khadi clad, pan-chewing hangers-on’ is no less trite than portraying Sonia Gandhi at the most crucial AICC meeting of her life as ‘…very much the headmistress at an assembly of spanked schoolboys.’

While the book exhibits painstaking research over the culinary details and aspects of dressage at the weddings of the Nehru-Gandhi family members, it focuses less on more politically loaded events. So, as attention is devoted to what was served at Sonia Gandhi’s marriage ceremony and who wore what at her daughter’s betrothal, the more politically valid sequence of events in the politics of Uttar Pradesh are described in the following manner:

‘She kept playing musical chairs with the state Congress chief’s post. First Prasada was removed and Tiwari was appointed. Then Salman Khurshid was appointed. Sri Prakash Jaiswal replaced Khurshid, but Sonia remained dissatisfied and brought in Arun Kumar Singh ‘Munna’, a little known political entity.’

Biography can reflect upon a life fully lived or meditate upon it episodically while it is lived. Kidwai’s book reflects continually upon the prevailing meditations of others. He has picked up a broad canvas and speedily drawn upon it. Where rich colours were required we are left with a dullness of description even as a need for sobriety in some aspects has been perpetrated with sweeping flourishes. The work does not live it all but crawls along in prose. It sights the imprints that internal party politics of the Congress has made on the Indian polity as a whole but does not pursue them; as a result the author’s judgements lack any reference to the rich political history of the Congress. When they do this judgement is flawed. For example it is simply wrong to state, without further qualification, that,

‘…the composition of the Congress is such that the winner takes it all. The party has a tradition that there can be just one power centre. Till Nehru was alive, he was everything and the organization had to bow before him. During the Narasimha Rao regime too it became clear that he alone was in command.’

The wealth of information at the disposal of anyone writing about Sonia Gandhi should itself ensure that such an undertaking should be better structured, better researched and less hurried than this book evidently is.

Yusuf Ansari