The Big Book: Vishnu’s crowded temple: India since the Great Rebellion

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 4 (July/August 2010), Reviews, Volume 18

79_small_1279724518All historical study is principally concerned with analysing the structures and processes of power. Maria Misra’s history is an eloquently spun meditation on the great shifts in political, religious, territorial and cultural control that have contributed to the emergence of modern India as an economic superpower. The first half of the book spans the rise and fall of the British Raj, from the Great Rebellion (Mutiny) of 1857 through to the violent flashpoint of partition belying independence in 1947. The latter half deals with the changing fortunes of the Nehru dynasty and the materialisation of the economic giant. It concludes in the India of Slumdog Millionaire, where the great paradoxes born from the clash between tradition, modernity and (post)colonialism are captured in the fanfare of hyper-reality masking India as the global hub of backroom outsourcing. The orientation of this work is the intellectual, ethnic and cultural conflicts that have brought about the nation’s particular brand of modernity, and Misra holds a steady course between academic rigour and an accessible, agile narrative, which, in the ancient Indian tradition, is intentionally argumentative.


She begins by situating her approach within three main schools of Indian historical interpretation. The most predominant in shaping western understanding of India is the grand narrative of liberal progress: British legacies of democracy and free markets were grafted on to Indian nationalism and bore the fruit of the modernised democratic republic. Another interpretation, rooted in Marxist ideology, constructs the story of embedded social and economic inequalities born of the caste system and successive waves of colonial rule. The English-speaking cosmopolitan élites who run India today are the inheritors of the political economy of the Raj. Thirdly, there is the subaltern voice, a comparatively recent interpretative departure extending out of a group of mainly Asian historians. The Subaltern Studies group has spawned some brilliant, if sometimes perplexing, new theories about history-writing, which have stimulated a rethinking of power, class, gender and ethnicity. While Misra’s analysis is referential to subalternism, she is not particularly sympathetic to the ethos of ‘well-heeled neo-Ghandians’ and avoids any conscious engagement with the high theory, preferring to dismiss ‘history from below’ from above.

‘Tropical Gothic’ is the ideal title of the opening chapter, evoking the exotic far pavilions of late nineteenth-century India. The description of the pomp and pageantry surrounding the investiture of Queen Victoria as empress works as an ideal keyhole into the mentality of the scholar-officials whose obsession with order, class and classification made them perversely fascinated in the mysteries of caste. Under the British two views of ‘progress’ struggled for domination. A utilitarian approach desired the wholesale westernisation of the continent. An orientalist school aspired to the founding of ‘progress’ while remaining respectful of local culture and tradition.

The analysis on colonial race relations and scrutiny of how Britain’s colonial policy prepared the ground for the sectarian violence of the twentieth century is a story that the great hagiographers of imperial India have tended to either excuse or forget. In the shadow of an era defined by the brief reigns of viceroys, some exquisite civic architecture and the administrative refinement of Simla lurks the spectre of massive social upheaval, appalling famines and irreparable disruption to ancient social structures brought on by the great symbol of Indian modernisation: the railway. A political self-consciousness, modelled closely on the Irish Home Rule movement, formed around the Indian National Congress. In the war of 1914–18 India deployed over 1.3 million personnel and contributed over £250 million worth of materials to the war effort.

That great barometer of imperial fair play, ‘cricket’, is used to illustrate the changes in social and political authority between the wars. The infamous Rowlatt Act (1919)—India’s version of the Defence of the Realm Act (1914)—is identified as the product of a paranoid administration obsessed with surveillance and an over-exaggerated view of the extent of sedition. Within a few months of the act passing into law, the Amritsar massacre became the blood sacrifice that turned millions of Indians against the Raj. Spiralling civil unrest was met by ever-increasing levels of colonial policing. Indian cities expanded rapidly and the inter-communal division deepened.

The most controversial aspect of this study is the chapter on Mahatma Gandhi—‘Spinning the Nation’. Here Misra takes a very deliberate revisionist line to debunk, as she sees it, the Gandhi myth. He is portrayed as prelapsarian, eccentric, faddish and extreme. His symbolic value and universality are underestimated, and his Arcadian dream to improve the lives of a largely poor, agrarian society is condemned as anti-modern. This interpretation misses the point. At a critical moment Gandhi assumed a leadership role and persistently subverted the internal and external formations of power in ways that forced the hand of the British Empire. At the core of his struggle was satyagraha (soul-force)—‘the ability to overpower your enemy with the moral truth of your position through infinite self-sacrifice’. He finessed the strategies of fasting, passive resistance, silence and civil disobedience so as to make the Empire reflect on its own use of martial violence and terror. During a life lived on many levels, he struggled against racial abuse, colonial oppression and the internal injustices of Indian society. Misra’s disbelief in his implication seems to confirm Albert Einstein’s prophecy that ‘Generations to come, it may be, will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth’.

Gandhi’s universal vision died with the partition of India: a shocking and lamentable tale of mismanaged decolonisation. The callous disregard for ordinary life is captured in the story of the brief intervention by Sir Cyril Radcliffe, director-general of the Ministry of Information, who was entrusted by Lord Mountbatten with the task of deciding on the territorial and demographic divisions between new Hindu and Muslim nation states. In less than a month, and with no former experience or knowledge of India, Radcliffe settled the fate of millions before destroying his working papers and returning to England. The violence born of one of ‘the greatest administrative operations in history’ led to a complete breakdown in civil society and detonated the highly combustible mix of national and religious passion. There was a rapid mobilisation of armed force and the recruiting of private militias to secure territory. Violence took on a ritualised form. Women in particular were targeted. And as blood stained the new frontiers and internal divisions of independent India and Pakistan, preparations were made for a gracious beating of the retreat. Gandhi compared the moment to the troubled birth of the universe in Hindu cosmology and made repeated reference to the ‘poison of partition’. His assassination within six months of independence was infinitely symbolic.

The chapter on ‘The Last Viceroy’ does not refer to Mountbatten but to Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India, who in various ways followed in the viceregal tradition. Interestingly, Nehru’s father had been close to the theosophist Annie Besant, and Nehru’s politics were informed by his sympathy with aspects of British Liberalism, Marxism, Ghandianism and Irish nationalism. Misra’s Nehru is everything that Gandhi was not. He was a great believer in the transformative power of technology as the potential liberating force of the masses, and he began the experiment in development and democracy that defines the modern India of today. The period immediately after independence saw ambitious economic planning, which put in place the infrastructure for the Green Revolution and Indian food security. He tried hard to build an ‘India of many faiths . . . but of one national outlook’, but efforts to build cultural unity were complicated by linguistic pluralism and regional fragmentation.

With the end of Nehru’s premiership the country slid into an era defined by paramilitary politics and agrarian populism. The Naxalite rebellion—a Maoist-led insurgency that spread through Bengal, Bihar and Andhra—was particularly threatening (and still is). The politician who would come to define the age was Nehru’s only progeny, Indira Gandhi, born into the hallowed inner circle of the Congress. As a child she squeezed juice from the orange that broke Gandhi’s famous Poona fast-unto-death. Her victory in the 1971 election followed by India’s military defeat of West Pakistan brought the country back from the brink. But the wave of popular adulation that swept her to victory quickly ebbed away. By 1974 the country was in a state of deep economic recession. A strike by rail workers paralysed the nation. The following year Mrs Gandhi declared a state of emergency. This led to her resounding defeat at the polls in 1977, re-election in 1980 and assassination in 1984 at the hands of her Sikh bodyguards after the bloody débâcle of the Golden Temple brought the conflict over the Punjab to a head.

From 1991 to 1996 the government of Narasimha Rao and his finance minister, the Oxbridge-educated Manmohan Singh, India’s current prime minister, ushered in the age of globalisation defined by deregulation, denationalisation and foreign investment. In the background to the freeing up of the capital markets came the rise of the BJP, the Hindu nationalist party. Its popularity demonstrates how religious hatred is increasingly used for political ends. In 1998 the BJP government made an international display of its muscular modernisation by detonating nuclear devices. With the help of the World Hindu Council, a policy was initiated to rewrite the history taught in school textbooks in order to configure with the BJP’s own origins and mythologies. Its popularity was eclipsed in the elections of 2004 and 2009. For the present a left-leaning coalition, held together by the Congress Party and Singh, are riding the wave of India’s economic miracle.

Like any history that ends in the present, there is no clear conclusion; the past remains open-ended. India’s experiment in democracy is still to be proved over the longue durée. The concerned outcries by public intellectuals such as Arundhati Roy and Vandana Shiva, exposing the social dispossession and democratic illusion wrought by globalisation and development, remain marginal. Standing beside Brazil, Russia and China, India is now part of a quadrangulated bloc of power prepared to challenge the old hegemonies of the new world order. Questions around resource depletion, environmental degradation, nuclear proliferation, frontier and food security are known unknowns in Vishnu’s crowded temple. Modern India may have largely turned its back on Gandhi’s aspiration for a nation in harmony with the cosmic spirit, but the gods are still at play. Vishnu ‘the Preserver’, a patriarchal deity representing order and rank, has been displaced by the subaltern Hanuman, who is neither man nor monkey nor god but something in between. His veneration is associated with change, social fluidity, compromise and connection, and he is worshipped for his skills as a facilitator, guide and entrepreneur. In recent years, temples and murtis or giant iconic representations of Hanuman the monkey god have been erected across India. O tempora! O mores!  HI

Angus Mitchell will shortly (August 2010) take up the W.B. Yeats Chair of Irish Studies at the University of São Paulo.

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