News18 » Blogs » India

A response to Perry Anderson's essay on Partition in The London Review of Books

Manu Bhagavan

Updated: August 23, 2012, 4:05 PM IST
facebook Twitter skype whatsapp
I recently read with significant concern Perry Anderson's essay on Partition of the Indian subcontinent (The London Review of Books, 19 July 2012), hyperlinked below. While Anderson is a distinguished historian, he tackles a range of complex subjects in a brusque and superficial manner in this essay. Though his efforts to critique the Indian Congress high command for its failings on caste, on religious minorities and questions of secularism and representation are broadly commendable, Anderson's readings are selective and ultimately misleading.

Read Perry Anderson's essay on Partition of the Indian subcontinent

Gandhi's "Hindu imaginary," for instance, is of a markedly different nature than that of peers such as Sardar Patel, KM Munshi, and many others. "Caste" is far more nuanced than Anderson makes it out to be, and his characterisation completely misses the role the British colonial system itself played in concretising many discriminatory aspects, as historians like Nick Dirks have effectively demonstrated.

Anderson's claim that Gandhi saw truth in himself is accurate only insofar as Gandhi saw truth as something that all people had to seek through rigorous inward journeying. Anderson's depictions of Gandhi and Nehru are more generally uncharitable and, supported by cherry-picked statements, spurious.

But perhaps the essay's most lamentable failing is in the absence of any discussion of the internationalism that guided the subcontinent's anti-colonial movement, and percolated through the work of everyone from Tagore and Aurobindo to MN Roy and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, from Ambedkar to Nehru himself.

Nehru and Jinnah shared a concern with the way "minorities" were constructed in modern states, and both sought to think of creative solutions. For Nehru, working together with Gandhi, this involved going beyond the nation state. The fate of princely states was intimately tied to this grand vision.

Yet, like so many others, Nehru played his cards close to his chest, and mistrust and miscalculation on all sides ultimately contributed to the violence of Partition. Anderson is correct in suggesting that we are all suffering the consequences of the tragedies of 1947. Shrill, reductionist commentary does not contribute to constructive and informed dialogue and debate meant to move us forward.
First Published: August 23, 2012, 4:05 PM IST