The Indian Ideology by Perry Anderson – a review

Perry Anderson, The Indian Ideology, London/New York: Verso, 2013, pp. 191. ISBN 13:978-1-78168-259-3.

The sweeping electoral victory of the Hindu nationalistBJP under the leadership of Narendra Modi has been greeted worldwide with a mixture of euphoria and alarm. Euphoria by the neo-liberal economists and big business. Alarm by the national minorities in and democratic rights activists India. Pritam Singh reviews The Indian Ideology by Perry Anderson, a welcome   book in giving a background to politics in India today.


Once in a while in any field of study, a book appears that can be called path breaking in terms of the quality of its critical review of the existing body of knowledge in that field and setting a new research agenda. This is one of those books in the field of Indian/South Asian studies. First published as a set of three essays in the London Review of Books in 2012 and subsequently brought together by a progressive Indian publisher Three Essays Collective, this is a very dense and penetrating reflection on the making of modern India. As would be expected from a Marxist scholar of the stature of Perry Anderson, the book also raises very serious questions for left wing politics in India.

A national and, to a great extent, global consensus on India that has got built over the years is that the post- colonial India is a story of success of democracy in difficult circumstances of a developing capitalist economy. This story of success is garnished with references to a secular constitution in a country of many religions, a free press, an independent judiciary and a thriving intellectual community. To this portrait of India is added the name of Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of India’s national movement for independence, as a man of peace, and that of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, as a towering Third World leader who is credited with laying the foundations of modernising India out of a backward agrarian economy. Many of these claims are grounded in varying degrees of truthful capturing of some aspects of India’s economic and political reality but the problem emerges when the captured images are magnified to a scale that a gloried picture of India emerges and leads to theorisation and celebration of the ‘Idea of India’. It gives birth to what Anderson, using a term Marx had used for Germany, calls Indian Ideology. This Indian Ideology of celebration of the ‘Idea of India’ is shared, in different hues, by a vast majority of Indian intellectuals within India or settled abroad. India’s Hindu nationalist party (BJP) took this celebration many steps further some years ago by coining the slogan of ‘Shining India’. In these essays, Anderson sets up the task of not only unearthing the roots of this ideology but also interrogating the validity of the claims of this ideology and the political implications of this ideology. He accomplishes this task by focusing his lens on Gandhi, the partition of India in 1947 and the formation of the ‘independent republic’ under the leadership of Nehru.

The running thread that Anderson identifies as connecting three phases of modern Indian history- the struggle for independence led by Gandhi, the 1947 partition and the making of the Indian republic under Nehru’s leadership- is Hindu-tainted Indian nationalism. Through a close reading of Gandhi’s collected works (100 volumes) and historical studies of the Indian nationalist movement, Anderson establishes that Gandhi transformed the Congress party from an elite pressure group into a mass movement but did so by injecting ‘a massive dose of religion-mythology, symbology, theology- into the national movement’ (p. 22). Gandhi saturated the Congress’s mass ‘appeal with a Hindu imaginary’ (p.94), and contrary to the Indian historiography’s construction of Jinnah, the Muslim League leader, as the villain behind religious communalisation, Anderson shows that ‘it was not Jinnah who injected religion into the vocabulary and imagery of the national movement, it was Gandhi’ (p.93). In Gandhi’s dictum ‘If religion dies, India dies’ (p.94), religion meant Hindu religion. For him, the Ramayana, the epic on the life of Hindu God Rama, was ‘the greatest devotional work in all literature’ (Gandhi’s original words cited by Anderson, p.24).

No one would believe that Gandhi’s conception of ‘truth’ (he called his life ‘experiments with truth’ as if truth was something to be played with) was not only structurally flawed; it was comical (and of course tragic in consequences) unless one has read Anderson’s devastating critique. Truth for Gandhi was what he felt subjectively at a particular point of time irrespective of whether it was consistent or not what he might have subjectively felt at another time and place. He ludicrously said that ‘since I am called a “Great Soul’’, he need not bother about ‘foolish consistency’ and that ‘I am always true from my point of view’ (Gandhi’s own words cited by Anderson, p.30). Such limitless arrogance and self-righteousness on the part of a man who commanded so much power would make any citizen of a democracy shiver with fear. Whether the Gandhian conception of truth is linked to his Hindu faith is a subject worth exploring, a task beyond the scope of Anderson’s book. However, Gandhi’s flip flop about supporting violence while claiming to be a man of peace, is certainly linked very closely to his Hindu-laced Indian nationalism. Recounting the forcible integration of the Muslim-majority Kashmir into India, Gandhi’s trusted colleague Patel who as the Home Minister led the invasion of Kashmir, reported Gandhi applauding the military action: ‘I feel so proud when I hear the noise of those aeroplanes. At one time I was feeling very miserable and oppressed when I heard this. But when this Kashmir operation began, I began to feel proud of them and every aeroplane that goes with materials and arms and ammunition and requirements of the Army, I feel proud’ (p. 88).

The Hinduisation of the national movement resulted in the Congress party that led the struggle for India’s independence to become a predominantly Hindu party. Anderson points out that during the 1930s; only 3% of the party membership was Muslim (p. 94) in a country where Muslims constituted about 25% of the population. This Hinduisation of the Congress party contained within it the seeds of India’s partition on religious grounds between a Hindu-majority Hindustan and a Muslim-majority Pakistan. The Muslim fears about overwhelming Hindu domination once the Congress becomes the ruling party were not only not addressed, they were dismissed. Jinnah’s attempts to make the Congress agree to a confederal structure of governance that could keep India united were rebuffed, and resulted in Muslim League eventually pushed into seeking an independent Muslim-majority Pakistan (p. 67).

When independence came, to ‘hallow the solemn occasion, Nehru and his colleagues sat cross-legged around a sacred fire in Delhi while Hindu priests-arrived post-haste from Tanjore for the ritual-chanted hymns and sprinkled holy water over them, while women imprinted their forehead with vermilion. Three hours later, on a date and a time stipulated by Hindu astrologers’ (p. 103), Nehru gave his ‘tryst with destiny’ speech at the stroke of midnight on 14 August 1947. The Constitution that was drafted for the new republic was seriously Hindu-tainted. The symbolic insertion of ‘Bharat’ in the opening article naming the country; the provisions for strong centralisation supportive of Hindu nationalism; the active intervention of the state to consolidate Hindu identity through reform of the Hindu religion; the definition of ‘Hindu’ supportive of Hindu assimilation agenda towards Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs; cow protection; pre-eminence status for Hindi in the Devanagari script and special importance for Sanskrit are all features of the constitution which make its secularism seriously Hindu-tainted (for details, see my ‘Hindu Bias in India’s ‘Secular’ Constitution: probing flaws in the instruments of governance’, Third World Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 6, pp. 909-926, 2005).

Many secular admirers of India are willing to concede the presence of Hindu religious bias in Gandhian politics but they would not suspect Nehru to harbour any pro-Hindu inclinations. Anderson demolishes this myth of secular Nehru. Anderson recognises that Nehru was not a believer as Gandhi was but his almost romantic notion of India’s oneness since time immemorial meant that he equated the religion with the nation. In his much celebrated book The Discovery of India, Nehru writes: ‘Hinduism became the symbol of nationalism. It was indeed a national religion, with all those deep instincts, racial and cultural, which form the basis everywhere of nationalism today’ (cited by Anderson, p. 54). He held contradictory positions on the Hindu institution of caste, praising it as a great historical institution at one point and considering it outdated at another point but avoiding the subject of untouchability all together (p. 54). Nehru’s Hindu bias was not religious per se but was closely entwined with his passion for building a strong united India with a highly centralised power structure. It was this vision of centralised and united India that was behind his ill-fated inflexibility in dealing with Jinnah’s demand for confederation. It was the same centralist vision that was responsible for the use of military power to deny Kashmiri people the right to self-determination. The most gruesome massacre that Anderson brings to light is the one that took place in the process of forcible integration of Hyderabad, a princely state with a Muslim ruler, in 1948. Anderson writes: ‘‘When the Indian Army took over Hyderabad, massive Hindu pogroms against the Muslim population broke out, aided and abetted by its soldiers. On learning something of them, the figurehead Muslim Congressman in Delhi, Maulana Azad, then Minister of Education, prevailed on Nehru to let a team investigate. It reported that at a conservative estimate between twenty-seven to forty thousand Muslims had been slaughtered in the space of a few weeks after the Indian take-over. This was the largest single massacre in the history of the Indian Union (pp. 90-91)…No word about the pogroms, in which his [Nehru’s] troops had taken eager part, could be allowed to leak out. Twenty year later, when news of the report finally surfaced, his daughter [Indira Gandhi] banned any publication of the document as injurious to ‘national interests’, faithful to her father’s definition of them” (p 91). The current Indian state in dealing with insurgencies in Punjab (a Sikh majority state), Nagaland (a Christian majority state) and Kashmir (a Muslim majority state) has been following the Nehruvian vision of defending the ‘national interests’!

Anderson notes, very perceptively, that the Indian intellectuals are unsparing in their scrutiny of India’s social ills: ‘Hunger, misery, illiteracy; inequality of every kind, sexual discrimination, economic exploitation; corruption, commercialization, fanaticism; the spreading of slums, the looting of the environment-a detailed scholarship of anger or disgust covers virtually all (p.168)…Yet compared with social criticism, political critique is typically less comprehensive, and less searching (p. 169)’. The most untouchable topic is the question of the unity of the nation. No dissent is allowed here and the scholastic critique, almost by its own choice, stops at the gate of India’s national unity. Anderson attributes this to ‘the tension of the relationship of so many Indian intellectuals to the traditional faith surrounding them’ (p. 172).

Perhaps, the most provocative of Anderson’s ideas is that the Congress party is the mother of this Hindu-tainted nationalism, and having remained in power for most part of India’s independent history, has frozen Indian politics. He locates the failure of the Indian Left to expand also to this freeze in Indian politics, and hopes that the decay of the dynasty-led Congress will open the gates of new thinking, creativity and initiative. He is willing to gamble on this even if it temporarily leads to the rise to power of the overtly Hindu nationalist BJP. My view on this is that the Indian Left needs to build, as a strategic vision, a Third Alternative beyond Congress and the BJP that is based on carefully worked out alliances with decentralist forces in India represented mainly by multiple regional nationalisms in India (for further elaboration, see my ‘Left and the Third Front’ Economic and Political Weekly, Vol XLIV, No.12, March 21, 2009, pp. 8-11).

While I agree with every word of Anderson’s criticism of Gandhi’s Hindu-saturated Indian nationalism, there is something valuable in Gandhi which is missing in his book perhaps because of the precise scope of the book. The valuable part in Gandhian thinking is the emphasis on environmental sustainability where Gandhi was far ahead of his contemporaries. While Nehru was obsessed with gigantism (dams, steel plants etc.), Gandhi was opposed to excessive materialism that was destructive of nature and laid emphasis on small scale and self-sufficient forms of economic activities. He did not understand the conflict between capitalism’s incessant march towards large scale units of economic activities and environmental destruction but he sensed a danger to nature from large scale forms of economic activities. There is no doubt that there is a link between his adherence to Hinduism and his respect for nature but that may be, ecologically speaking, a positive aspect of the Hindu tradition that need to be valued and celebrated. I will leave this as an unresolved question for the moment along with noting that a prominent Indian intellectual Meera Nanda has strongly argued a link between a variant of Indian environmentalism and sympathy for Hinduism extending into Hindu nationalism.

I wish that this intellectually wonderful book was not marred by so many spelling and grammatical errors in its production which a good copy editing should have taken care of.

This book deserves to be widely read. It has for the first time launched an intellectually powerful frontal attack on the icons of Indian nationalism- Gandhi and Nehru. If this book leads to shifting the intellectual and political interest to B. R. Ambedkar, the Dalit leader, and Subhas Bose, a socialist rival of Gandhi, it would have served its purpose in shifting the thinking to a new ‘Idea of India’. The Hindu nationalists are trying to project Sardar Patel, the ‘iron man’ of Indian/Hindu nationalism. I would choose Bhagat Singh, the revolutionary socialist thinker and martyr. Against the Indian nationalist vision of Gandhi, Nehru and Patel, the socialists need to project Ambedkar, Bose and Bhagat Singh as alternatives to construct new narratives of Indian history and politics.

Pritam Singh, June 2014
Oxford Brookes University


  1. Gandhi’s and Congress’ politics need to be critiqued, so does, I believe, the critique by Perry Anderson and also the review here in order to get at the truth of the past so as to build an egalitarian India in economic, social and religious terms.
    That would require more space and time than is possible here.
    1. Whereas Gandhi is justifiably held responsible for inducting religiosity in the national movement , I see no reason why Jinnah’s induction of communalism should be overlooked. Whereas Gandhi used religion for a secular purpose, Jinnah stoked an a-religious communalism with his politics and conceptualisation of Indian reality, apparently to give his community a legitimate share of political power but also to fulfill his own power ambitions and set conditions for country’s unity unacceptable to not just the dominant communal section of Congress but also the more secular sections of the movement such as the socialists which Jinnah’s politics ignored, so obsessed was he with communal power sharing.
    This country was hostage to two cunning Banias. One, of course is well identified; Gandhi, a Hindu Bania. The role of the other, a Muslim Bania, is conveniently overlooked- Jinnah.
    There is enough evidence to nail Jinnah for his role during that period, but he is being portrayed as a victim of dominant Hindu communalism, even a secularist, by selective choosing/omitting facts concerning him.
    2. For the left the path lies not in aligning with the regional forces which have always been eager to be B teams of either the Congress or the BJP led alliances, but in building an alternate constituency through mass and class movements and also alternate politics and would therefore require steering clear of not only the two major parties but also their lesser minions, the regional groupings. That alone can be the basis of third front/alternate politics.
    3. The alternate development model would require an alternate lifestyle for the masses and that would require foregoing at least some of the comforts and quite a few luxuries which most of the middle classes, including you and me, have hitherto enjoyed. It is easy to talk about an alternate development model but would be difficult to chose an alternate lifestyle which would require sacrifices on our part- Cars , refrigerators, washing machines, dish washing machines, etc, etc. Even processed or semi-processed foods that our jobs and lifestyles dictate.
    But still, the straggle for an alternate development model at both theoretical and at the level of practice must continue to get out of the catastrophic mess we are heading towards.

  2. on your 1, I am afraid that you are still trapped in the Jinnah vilification mind set that also ridiculously sees Gandhi’s use of religion as ‘secular’. Jinnah was absolutely right in demanding a confederation which Nehru and Patel rejected. On 2. Regional nationalism has to be recognized as a powerful decentralizing force against the centralizing agenda of both the Congress and the BJP. Specific regional parties may behave opportunistically but that should not be confused with the abiding positive nature of regional nationalisms in the making of plural, democratic and multinational India that would be fundamentally different from the overcentralised and undemocratic India that has been shaped by the Nehruvian model. On 3, you are absolutely right and I endorse every word of that. However, that paradigm is against the Nehruvian gigantism and BJP shining idea.

  3. good critique.. Indian leftists and socialists never see hindu religion as a negative force since they themselves belive in hinduism just like Gandhi…hypcrasy prevails all over indian left and socialist scholars and leaders,,.they never recognise intelectuals/leaders unless they belongs to particular caste or religion.further they never think like a Marx, Mao or like anderson. simply they follows what ever the ideology may be by making hinduisation with out affecting their religious system .Dr Ambedkar relentlessly criticised Gandhi s ideology and congress party politics but nobody has taken seriously.ok, is really Gandhi s ideology or Nehrus deeds made India as developed nation after almost 70years of independence as envisaged by them.why we are always needs outside people to tell ourslves?all our intelectual s are psedo intelectuals or mere followers only?

  4. Having just read the new biography of Gandhi by Ramachandra Guha (“Gandhi Before India”, Penguin Books, 2014) I think that Perry Anderson would do well to extend his focus to the seminal period of Mohandas K. Gandhi´s stay in the colony of South Africa – he lived in S.A. 1893 – 1914 (except for the years 1896 – 1897). Ramachandra Guha´s portrait seeks to “humanise” the Saint (viz. Attenborough´s 1982 film) as well as countless other poorly researched monographs and essays. “Deeply contextualised, dextrously researched and judiciously written”, as one critic writes. Chapters 4, p 82 to Ch. 22 pps. 550 deal with his time in S.A. No deity emerges but the figure of a flexible, and pragmatic politician – he was in fact an extremely shrewd negotiator or political ‘fox’, which is something his enemies, like General Smuts, quickly recognised; but he also had some strange human frailties and quirks (which we shall not go into here).

    The more lasting and problematic issue is the political legacy of Gandhi which is the focus of Anderson´s essay. Yes, I also think that, following Pritam Sing , “The Hinduisation of the national movement resulted in the Congress party that led the struggle for India’s independence to become a predominantly Hindu party”, …”the most provocative of Anderson’s ideas is that the Congress party is the mother of this Hindu-tainted nationalism, and having remained in power for most part of India’s independent history, has frozen Indian politics”.

    But like in South Africa, on the African sub-continent where Gandhian policies are also suppose to have been inspirational and have succeeded, one has to ask: Why? How has the dominant nationalist movement there, the African National Congress, also “frozen politics” and led the country into an abyss?

    The roots of the crisis of this might be to be found in the pre-Independence period, maybe as early as 1914 when Gandhi returned to India. By the time Gandhi arrived in 1914, Congress was moving in two directions. One faction (the “Moderates”) kept up the usual method of petitioning. Others who had become impatient with this ineffective “mendicant” (begging) method became known as ‘Extremists’ and moved toward individual terrorism and violence.

    But both were still elite strategies, separated from a popular movement of mass resistance. In spite of obvious differences in goals and tactics, the common element in both wings of nationalism was their ‘elitism’ and ‘substitutionism’.
    Congress leaders believed that the enlightened and educated (themselves) should speak for the masses, while those espousing an armed revolutionary assault as coming from a dedicated minority – on behalf of the masses – in both cases the absence of a mass movement was the fundamental weakness. In 1915 Congress militants had been committing individual terrorist acts that did not really change anything, and the masses had mounted local uprisings that were brutally suppressed by the colonial authorities.

    It was Gandhi’s intervention at this historic conjuncture that was decisive in shifting the goals and parameters of the Indian freedom movement. He was able to advance the freedom movement and bring into its orbit several consituencies that the other established leaders were impervious or hostile to.
    Practically every class had grievances against British rule: lower and middle peasants; the emerging urban working class; the professional middle classes and now the new strata of the capitalists. It was a matter of time before enough of these sections of Indian society would unite to throw off British rule.

    The real question was which sections would coalesce into an alliance to lead the rest – and with which ideas about the shape of post-Independence, and which tactics and long-term strategy would be employed to achieve this.
    Gandhi, more than anyone else, would pull together the leading alliance of (social) forces. His political vision and organisational interventions would put a stamp on the direction of the movement at crucial times. His strategy of nonviolent mass action seemed to provide a way forward for the resistance movement at both the elite and popular levels.

    Gandhi’s ideas presented an alternative to these unhappy options. The appeal of Gandhi’s strategy was two-fold. It appealed to the masses of villages because it was a collective way to resist, to try and rise above the violence and show the dignity of their cause. It also appealed to the wealthy merchants, landloards, and small-holding peasants who supported Gandhi because it offered the hope of getting rid of British rule while not threatening to destroy their property or endanger their economic and social position.

    Gandhi pitched his methods of struggle to the more conservative Congress leaders as a way to win leadership from the ‘militants’ – through Gandhi’s appeal of a nonviolent removal of British rule, Congress began to receive funding from many of the biggest industrial concerns, including the Sarabhais textile magnates in Gujarat and the Birlas, the second-largest industrial group in India. Gandi’s campaigns were made possible by drawing from the vast financial resources of the industrialist G.D. Birla. These remained his regular consultants throught his political career.

    The picture that thus emerges is of Gandhi always having to reconcile class divisions – of trying to smooth over class divisions – while his campaigns of mass action would continually move beyond the boundaries he tried to impose. This was because, in order to build up a mass base, he would deliberately tap into people’s real grievances (land, rents, debt) which often had a class aspect.
    His championing of an ancient pre-modern Hindu Indian civilization, thought a necessary corrective to British imperial arrogance, has all the hallmarks of ‘invention’ and ‘re-invention’: an ‘imagined’ pre-capitalist rural or agrarian community in equilibrium, without recognising that class and class forces was a central dynamic of modern capitalist society.

    His attitude towards the masses in the villages was often contradictory. He would champion peasants’ demands and organise them on condition that they remained peaceful, respectful of landowners and obedient to Gandhi’s tactics. If they had the temerity to demand the confiscation of private property, they were deemed to be ungrateful, unruly and unworthy. It could be argued that Gandhi had brought a mass base into the nationalist movement in the first all-India struggles during and immediately after the First World War: these struggles themselves connected popular grievance against aspects of British rule to the final goal of ‘ending’ British rule.

    In the course of these struggles, Gandhi remoulded Congress from an elitist organisation of once-a-year Congresses and intermittently-active nationalist clerks and lawyers into a genuinely mass movement-cum-party. Popular outrage led Gandhi to launch his first national satyagraha on 1 August 1920 after the Amritsar massacre. The boycott of foreign cloth was successfully implemented.
    The next mass movement, the Non-Cooperation Movement of 1921-22, had unleashed forces beyond Gandhi’s control, and he then called the campaign off when a crowd in Chari-Chaura responded to police beatings and gunfire by killing 22 policemen.

    By 1921-22 a potentially revolutionary situation had emerged – it also showed that Gandhi could call an all-India movement, and then call it off when it got too militant and beyond the control of the Congress leadership, shows just how crutial he had become to the nationalist movement. Gandhi stature was so great that he had assumed the effective leadership of Congress, serving as its president from 1924 to 1929. The freedom struggle had assumed an all-India character under his leadership.

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