The Poverty of Indian Ideology

Perry Anderson's The Indian Ideology takes on the contradictions of India's political system.

India’s liberal intellectuals might be unknowing participants in a grand hoax, according to Perry Anderson’s The Indian Ideology. That hoax is India’s secular democracy, which is eagerly marketed as the world’s largest and most diverse, but in reality is soiled and riven by chauvinistic politics, religious parties, a calcified caste system, and the ongoing catastrophe of Kashmir. Anderson traces India’s near-irreconcilable contradictions to its independence and Partition, offering a stunning indictment of the Indian National Congress (INC), Hindu anti-colonial leaders including Mohandas Gandhi and his political partner Jawaharlal Nehru, and British administrators.

Anderson describes Gandhi as “a first-class organizer and fundraiser,” though also “temperamentally in many ways an autocrat,” and for whom his peculiar brand of “religion mattered more than politics.” A talented and charismatic communicator, he helped transform INC into a Hindu-dominated popular political party, rendering India’s secularity a farce. Nehru, India’s first prime minister, was an upper-caste dandy who “had few political ideas of his own,” and could be trusted “not to challenge [Gandhi’s] authority if he chose to exercise it.” He is the one who Anderson holds chiefly responsible for using the favor of the British and its crooked electoral architecture to alienate the Muslim minority and undercut socialists, while enshrining a tradition of hereditary politics that India continues to suffer from to this day.

To Anderson, India is a hopelessly impoverished and divided country, rife with corruption and nepotism and bloody from communal violence and pogroms against Muslims. It is this judgment that has left Anderson contemptuous of liberal Indian intellectuals who produce glowing tributes to their country.

Invoking The German Ideology, Anderson takes aim at Meghnad Desai, Ramachandra Guha, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Amartya Sen and Sunil Khilani, for their celebration of India as an exceptional nation and a thriving democracy. Pulling out short quotes from their writings and glossing over their positions and achievements only briefly, Anderson engages their work only superficially. Anderson’s critique, which originally appeared as three essays in the London Review of Books, has inspired critical letters to the editor and several responses, many of which have imputed ignorance of South Asian politics and possible Orientalism.

At least some of the opprobrium can be attributed to the prominence and talent of the writer. Recommending Anderson’s essays, Lorin Stein of The Paris Review told readers to “imagine the old Encyclopedia Britannica as written by the God of the Old Testament. He lays about him with a mighty hand.”

Anderson, a long-time editor of the New Left Review and a leading Marxist historian and critic, has spent much of his career decrying the insular cultures and interventionist postures of post-war England and the US, and can dismiss the charges of Western condescension and ignorance. The Indian Ideology comes in the wake of Anderson’s study of interstate systems and is followed up by a new, special issue of the New Left Review in which he assesses US foreign policy and its strategists. As a historian, he analyzes politics in a more traditional sense, investigating the intersection of individuals and ideas with the state and chronicling their transformations and relationships with power. Anderson has adopted what Wallace Stevens called “a mind of winter”; detached and free of all pretensions, he interrogates the history of India’s greatest icons, their ideas, and the policies they enacted.

The Idea of India

Harsh criticism like Anderson’s is nothing new for India, which has long been the target of liberal Western critics who’ve derided it as a quasi-socialist state with exotic and backwards traditions and mystical religions. But recently, since the country has embraced neoliberal economic reforms, India has garnered more positive reviews. Critics compare it favorably to Islamicized Pakistan and Communist China, while most continue to ignore the religious fault lines that still divide the country.

In defending India, liberal intellectuals echo the rhetoric of the state, using “the centrality of four tropes in the official and intellectual imaginary of India,” which Anderson sums up as “the couplets of antiquity-continuity; diversity-unity; massivity-democracy; multiconfessionality-secularity.” These tropes, which Anderson says are touchstone of the ‘idea of India,’ were zealously promoted by Nehru and Gandhi who wrote benighted odes to India as an exceptional nation that had been united from time immemorial. These are the claims that the mythologized idea of India was built on and the ones that Anderson tears apart:

Separated by intervals of five hundred and a thousand years, there was no remembered political or ideological connection between these realms, or even common religious affiliation: at its height the first of them Buddhist, the second Hindu, the third Muslim. Beneath a changing mosaic of mostly regional rulers, there was more continuity of cultural and social patterns, caste — the best claimant to a cultural demarcation — being attested very early, but no uniformity. The “idea of India” was a European invention, as the name itself makes clear. No such term, or equivalent, as “India” existed in any indigenous language. A Greek coinage taken from the Indus river, it was so foreign to the subcontinent that as late as the [sixteenth] century, Europeans could define Indians simply as “the natives of all unknown countries” and use it to describe the inhabitants of the Americas.

Students of socialism will be familiar with these arguments. Karl Marx, who did not “believe in the Golden Age of Hindostan,” noted that the divisions between tribes, regions, castes and religions, enabled the British to subdue and conquer the Indians. Like Marx, Anderson also evinces a strong distrust of superstitions and religion, while admiring material progress and narratives of national emancipation. But unlike Marx, Anderson doesn’t believe that Partition and the segmentation of Indian society were predestined, instead attributing historical agency to India and blaming its failings on its political leaders.


Few political figures are above reproach, but Gandhi certainly seems to be one. He is regularly celebrated by liberals as the spiritual father of India and an icon of anti-colonial movements. Marxists and radicals, from Evelyn Roy to Leon Trotsky, have found him frustrating and even infuriating for having coopted much of the rhetoric of the Left while undermining its policies during India’s slow march to independence. Anderson not only criticizes Gandhi for his moldered passivity but blames him for injecting “a massive dose of religion — mythology, symbology, theology — into the national movement.” Instead of building a secular anti-colonial movement based on economic relief, Gandhi relied on faith.

He remade the INC, which originally practiced the politics of secular elitism, into a force that thrived on mass mobilization and Hindu rhetoric. Anderson admits that Gandhi was likely sincere “in holding that all religions were equal before the Lord,” but politically, “one religion was, inevitably, more equal than the other.” Seeing Islam as a foreign religion and Buddhism as not unique to the subcontinent, Gandhi thought of Hinduism as essential to the Indian character. But to unite Muslims in their common national struggle, Gandhi rallied under the banner of Islam to try to protect the caliphate in the wake of Ottoman Empire’s defeat in the Great War. Though more secular Muslims regarded the issue as “thoroughly regressive, a breeding ground for clerical posturing,” Gandhi persevered because it was a religious cause that united Hindus and Muslims, and because he would not have to campaign for social justice, which socialists and radicals sought.

In fact, revolution was worse than the British Raj, and class war was unthinkable. Gandhi even threatened to fast to death to prevent Untouchables from having separate electorates, because that threatened to confirm and reveal the caste system as a cruel and discriminatory system that damned the lower castes to suffer every possible indignity. But to Gandhi “the hereditary principle is an eternal principle,” and “to change it is to create disorder.”

Anderson even finds Gandhi’s pacifistic rhetoric to ring hollow. After having inflamed religious sensibilities, Gandhi said that if his non-violent struggles turned violent, it would be because God had intended it, and that “if India wants her bloodbath, she shall have it.” When Partition and the pogroms of 1947 erupted, he would be sorry.


Though both Gandhi and Nehru are guilty of writing lavish and empurpled love letters to the idea of India, it is Nehru who Anderson blames for his dreamy disregard for reality and its disastrous consequences.

Born to wealth, Nehru lived a life of easy luxury and was educated at Cambridge where he earned “a mediocre degree in natural sciences.” Nehru’s affinity for the sciences and his non-belief did not manage to inoculate him from falling under the spell of Gandhi, who he met in his late twenties when he had few ideas of his own. Additionally, Nehru’s agnosticism did not translate to any substantial differences from Gandhi on issues concerning religion, including the defense of the caste system, Hinduism as a national religion and incredulity in the face of confessional conflict.

In Anderson’s portrayal, Nehru could always be counted as a loyal member of the old guard, and a hapless one at that. In the wake of Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s Lahore Resolution in 1940, which called for two states in the subcontinent, “he saw no reason to revise his claim that ‘the forces working for Indian unity are formidable and overwhelming, and it is difficult to conceive of any separatist tendency’ — it was staring him in the face — ‘which can break up this unity.’” When the inevitability of Partition became apparent to him, Nehru capitalized on the British’s interests in Malaya and his personal relationship with Viceroy Lord Mountbatten to maximize territory for India and transfer power early. Poor administration caused, in part, by the abrupt transfer of power resulted in approximately 1 million deaths.

As for the territories, most regions were easily appropriated by religion, but Bengal was a different story. Hindu and Muslim Bengali leaders campaigned for an independent state, called United Bengal, and it enjoyed the consent of Jinnah. But Nehru, who wanted as much territory for India as possible, backed INC and Gandhi’s support for “the rabidly confessional Hindu Mahasabha” party, which succeeded in rallying Hindu demands for partition in Bengal, killing any possible chance for a unitary Bengali state. In regions where the population was overwhelmingly Hindu and the leader Muslim, INC used military force to secure them for India. In Kashmir, where the population was overwhelmingly Muslim and the leader Hindu, India militarily intervened to seize the region on a flimsy legal basis, inflaming sectarian divides and communal violence.

Though Anderson details many of Nehru’s shortcomings, these are the most frustrating and heartbreaking; they best exemplify the failed promise of a united and secular India, which continue to haunt India, Pakistan and Bangladesh to this day.

Critical Reception

Offering a devastating critique of Hindu Indian independence leaders, Anderson makes sure to also condemn the British for their imperial hubris and Jinnah for his failure to contribute positively to the Kashmir dispute. But at its core, The Indian Ideology is a diagnosis of India’s ills though the ideological biographies of its first leaders. Though lacking serious discussion of economics and state institutions, Anderson’s brief book tries and succeeds at challenging clichéd and hackneyed liberal Indian history, which has all but beatified Gandhi and Nehru.

Yet, the mixed reviews Anderson has gotten from Indian intellectuals reflect how difficult criticism like his will be received. Many, if not most, of Anderson’s critics at least acknowledge the skill in which he lays out India’s history and inveighs against communal violence and religious strife, but the compliments usually end there.

Ananya Vajpeyi, a scholar at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi, penned both a letter to the London Review of Books and a review for the Caravan that are exemplary of the criticism Anderson has received. She finds Anderson’s first foray into Indian political history odd and dispiriting, concluding that Anderson’s harsh treatment of Gandhi and Nehru evinces a “zeal to demolish these idols and, by extension, to discredit the Independence movement,” making Anderson sound like “Winston Churchill or the latter-day Tory defenders of the Raj than a preeminent British Marxist.”

Such an exaggerated attack can be dismissed on substance, but Vajpeyi’s reference to Gandhi and Nehru as idols is telling. Any attempt to find fault in India’s founding leaders will be reflexively distrusted and disparaged by intellectuals and historians who guard their place on the national pedestal. In reality, Anderson seeks to humanize Nehru and Gandhi and dispel myths that surround them, while highlighting the courage and conviction of more worthy independence leaders.

Specifically, he writes admiringly of Bhimrao Ambedkar, the Untouchable leader and the main author of the Indian Constitution, who fought for separate electorates for his caste and said that Gandhi’s opposition and defeat of the measure “was the worst form of coercion against a helpless people.” Anderson is clearly supportive of the independence movement and contends that Gandhi and Nehru disserved the movement and postponed their liberty.

Vajpeyi is also convinced that Anderson is attempting to “absolve the British of all responsibility for the slaughter of Partition” and “deny any efficacy whatsoever to Gandhi’s political techniques.” Yet Anderson repeatedly condemns the tactics of the British Empire across the world and even seems to relish ridiculing Lord Mountbatten for his vainglory and his atrocious negotiations over Partition, which Anderson says “has a good claim to be the most contemptible single act in the annals of the empire.”

Anderson also describes at length the British’s tactics of pitting Indians against each other, but credits Gandhi’s powerful political techniques of using religion to help mobilize the independence movement for exacerbating religious conflict. Gandhi’s considerable ability to remake INC in his image and play upon confessional differences are proof of Anderson’s belief in both his efficacy and his divisiveness. Anderson’s Gandhi is a powerful political figure who acts capriciously but almost always out of conviction.

As a systematic deconstruction of a dominant ideology, The Indian Ideology is vulnerable to charges of overgeneralizing and lacking nuance. Indeed, Vajpeyi attacks Anderson for simplifying Hinduism and failing to recognize the contribution of the Left and scholars of subaltern studies. Anderson is not interested in litigating Hinduism or its rituals, and examines it as a political force and a societal mechanism, causing him to look at Hinduism’s role in dividing the country, dominating political parties and maintaining the caste system.

As for Anderson ignoring the contributions of the Left and subaltern studies, it’s true that he does not engage with their works as a whole. Undoubtedly, their contributions would likely bolster his arguments; however, Anderson does extensively cite several Indian historians who are critical of India’s past and present. Anderson’s essays are well sourced and artfully crafted, offering a comprehensive history of India’s ideology.

In the end, superficial attacks like Vajpeyi’s serve as an example of Indian intellectuals’ attempts to police the limits of discourse surrounding India’s storied history. Though easily disproven, their claims and invective reflect an automatic effort not only to insulate the prevailing ideology from criticism, but to punish those who try to point out its errors.

In a 2005 column, “In Defense of History,” Eric Hobsbawm wrote that the past thirty years had been “a golden age for the mass invention of emotionally skewed historical untruths and myths,” noting specifically the case of “India under the BJP.” Anderson’s essays are a valuable attempt to correct the record.