A fresh perspective on the struggle and formation of the Indian state and its continuing saga
Reading on the subject of political thought, intellectual history, or the history of ideas – whatever terminology you choose – I always remember my professor of political theory in college. The learned and erudite teacher would give a very eloquent but mysterious lecture and, seeing our confused faces, would stop and say, “Words may be difficult, but the idea conveyed is actually very simple.” For us students, it remained a mystery that if the idea was indeed simple, why couldn’t it be conveyed in the same way?
I remembered my teacher through Shruti Kapila Violent Brotherhood: Indian Political Thought in the Age of Globalization. The title, blurbs, mentions of leading scholars in the field of intellectual history and political thought will entice anyone interested in history-politics to pick up a copy, as it promises a new perspective on the struggle and formation of the Indian state and its continuing saga. However, while Kapila’s scholarship may be meticulous – she is a lecturer in history at the University of Cambridge – the same cannot be said of her work, which is perplexing, unable to understand exactly what the author means. Perhaps the fault lies with me, an ordinary reader who is unable to grasp the very sophisticated academic jargon and the convoluted, long sentences. My question remains the same as during my student years – if the idea is to explain and unravel a mystery, why wrap it in obscure language? If an invisible hand is working or has worked in the past in the formation of our state that has spawned violent streaks within us, isn’t it better to make the facts clear enough for as many readers as possible to better understand these factors?
Here is a random sample: “Fasting, for Gandhi, was the technique and the act that interrupted the continuum of life and death linked to sovereign power. Death, especially in the form of sacrifice, as seen above, has become the basis of living with others, be it family or brotherhood, friend or the enemy. By emphasizing that death is the ultimate individual capacity, Gandhi aimed to rescue sovereign power from its meditative and all-encompassing cages of laws and institutions: or, to put it bluntly, the modern state.
Another gem: “Gandhi’s victory over Ambedkar during his lifetime was Pyrrhic; his subject-focused political project was overwhelmed by Ambedkar’s agonism. The constitutional architecture of the Republic, and the eclipse by the sovereignty of the concern for fraternity, make too obvious the ideological longevity and the final victory of Ambedkar. If the repeated return, in contemporary Indian political discourse, of these two figures testifies to their founding and inexhaustible shared role, contemporary disputes over their relative reputations and receptions nevertheless reveal the lineaments of new hostilities and partisan identifications, and the dramatic change of their respective relationships. Reputations suggest a first set of benchmarks for tracing the evolution of political languages under democracy.
For readers who like this language, then the book is surely a treat for them. However, I’m sure even those readers might find it difficult to list five or six points the author wants to make. The test of good writing on the subject of political philosophy is how quantitative it can be so that readers can summarize the points for or against the arguments made. I disagree that the subject of political thought is in itself trivial and cannot be explained in a simple way. If philosophy is to understand the world, the “why” and the “how” of society, then it must be digested by ordinary people, or what’s the point?
Here I would like to give an example of Harvard political philosopher Michael J Sandel. If Sandell can explain topics like merit and justice in a language and form that his courses are seen by tens of millions of people, then it’s proven that it’s not the philosophy that’s boring or uninteresting; they are the writers and teachers of the subject.
The reason I say the subject of the book is interesting but the way it has been presented is a wasted opportunity is because Kapila contains chapters on the most notable leaders who shaped Indian political thought – Tilak, Ghadarites, Savarkar, Gandhi, Amebdkar, Iqbal and Patel. Whether or not one agrees with their policies and political thinking, the fact is that they continue to shape the current political nuances and debates and the course that the Indian state is taking or could take in the future. ‘to come up. Their analysis must therefore be carried out in a very reader-friendly way and aimed at a wider audience than remaining a mere academic acrobatic exercise.
The book may appeal to a section of academics – I would say a very narrow section including micro-specialists in the field, as larger universities may also find it boring. To be clear, I am not questioning Kapila’s academic credentials, her knowledge of the subject and her research skills, which are all beyond reproach; but the mode of presentation is very disappointing. I hope there will soon be a simpler version for non-academic readers.
Violent Brotherhood: Indian Political Thought in the Age of Globalization
Princeton University Press
Pp 328, Rs 3,000
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