March 12, 2012
Ambitious compendium of India
A book on contemporary India comes with a French flavour, unlike that of Anglo-American scholarship
No one is likely to dispute the author's claim that India since 1950 is an ‘ambitious book', both in terms of its thematic reach and scholarly participation. It seeks to cover almost every aspect of post-colonial India: political history, foreign policy, economic trajectory, social and demographic dynamics, cultural diversity and artistic achievements as well as media developments. Narrating the diverse dimensions of these developments of a vast country like India is not an easy task. Christophe Jaffrelot has tried to accomplish this near-impossible task through the compilation of essays written by a large number of scholars, teaching or researching in France, which imparts to this volume a flavour different from the usual Anglo-American scholarship.
Apart from a brief introduction and the conclusion there are 37 essays in the volume grouped together in four parts. The first part deals with ‘Politics and Economy', the second with ‘The Indian Union and the Political Administration of its diversity', the third with ‘The Indian People: Class, Caste and Communities' and the final part with the ‘ Media and the Arts'. Each part is prefaced by a very concise statement about its content. A distinguishing feature of this collection is the equal attention it pays to ‘politics, including public policies in the economic domain, society, analysed from an anthropological point of view and culture, designating religion and language as well as artistic traditions'. An unusual, but extremely welcome, part is on the dynamics of culture, which provides a fullness generally missing in such works. Each of these essays forms a part of the larger story of India's struggle to create a secular and democratic nation.
Influence of Orientalism
For a long time western scholarship on India, trapped in the influence of Orientalism, has been obsessed with the unchanging character of Indian society. The influence of this tradition was believed to be so strong that the ability of India to develop modern political institutions and achieve economic development was in doubt. Consequently it was argued that India had ‘ dangerous decades' ahead of it, which was likely to impact adversely upon the working of the democratic polity and secular institutions adopted by the Indian Constitution. History has disproved these assumptions and, as the editor of this volume rightly observes, India has obviously ‘frustrated these pessimistic predictions', despite several twists and turns in its polity and economy during the last sixty three years. Indian democracy managed to overcome the challenge posed by the Emergency imposed during 1975-77 and also outlived the threat of Hindu fundamentalism. At the root of this success was the strength of the ‘Indian path' which sought national reconstruction in which ‘all the communities, linguistic as well as religious, were called upon to live together in one secular Indian Union', based on the notion of composite culture.
The Indian path did not witness any ‘revolutionary breaks, but only inflections' and as a result India did not ‘break with its history through violent ruptures', instead only piled up ‘ evolutionary transformations'. Nevertheless, neither democracy nor secularism has lived up to their potential by extending economic and cultural equality to the minorities and the marginalised. The former lived under discriminatory conditions, particularly in BJP-ruled states like Gujarat and Karnataka and the latter constantly faced economic and social deprivation. The bulk of the contribution on these dimensions is by Jaffrelot himself, whose earlier works had covered the rise of Hindu nationalism and lower caste movements.
A major consequence of the Indian path is that it paved the way for the growth of a capitalist order, leading to the increasing incidence of inequality, particularly after liberalisation. In the summing up the editor points out that ‘Economic liberalisation has enabled those who had some capital — intellectual, social or financial — to make it fructify, whereas others have lagged behind. Ten years after liberalisation in 1991, 70 per cent of the Indian population was still living with less than 90,000 rupees a year, but during the same period, the number of those who earned more than one million a year has increased from 2, 68,000 to 8, 07,000. These nouveaux riches have introduced a new life style in Indian cities where ‘golden ghettoes' have developed with their private schools, private hospitals and shopping malls. The modernisation of India, which is being attempted with the support of global capital, excludes overwhelming majority of people from its benefits. It is to the credit of this volume that it clearly highlights this increasing disparity.
This work was initially intended for French readers, as a comprehensive factual account which would serve as a reference source on post-colonial India. Understandably, therefore, its focus is more on information rather than on interpretation. Nevertheless, even for English readers it is a useful guide to the nature of French scholarship on modern India.