In several respects, though, India and China are as different as chalk and cheese. While China’s development model is top-down — heedless of opposing voices — India’s is too often accused of being a slow starter thanks to a democratic ethos that must accommodate varying opinions. This, combined with the formidable cultural diversity of India, makes it a somewhat unique case, and therefore, of tremendous interest to academics. In Vishnu’s Crowded Temple, Maria Misra, professor of modern history at Oxford University, tries to make sense of the wonder that is India (to adapt A. L. Basham’s famed title). Beginning with the First Great War of independence in 1857 which finished the reign of the East India Company and brought India under the direct control of the British Queen, Misra takes us through the freedom struggle, India’s independence, and the post-independence fissures the country faced, in a well-researched and lucidly argued book.
Misra’s book, while serving as a treatise on the history of the subcontinent, is especially attractive for registering the diverse impulses that have shaped and continue to shape the India story. The title draws from Periyar E. V. Ramaswami’s struggle in 1931 demanding Dalits be allowed entry to the famed Vishnu temple in Guruvayur in present day Kerala. The temple had been, until then, the sole preserve of the higher castes, who feared that the entry of a Dalit into the sanctum sanctorum would debase it. Periyar was a low-caste intellectual who had launched the Self-Respect Movement in 1925 to promote equality for Dalits and allow them to enjoy a sense of pride in their Dravidian past. Periyar’s struggle was also directed at the Congress party, which he accused was a “Brahmin-dominated claque devoted to the preservation of high-caste privilege and hierarchy”. The debate over low castes’ entry to the Guruvayur temple became a rallying point for the Self-Respect Movement, and ended in success. Misra’s “crowded temple” is a pointer to the Dalits’ political struggle to gain equality and legitimacy in public spheres.
The colonial edifice
But Misra’s temple is also the colonial edifice, which from the 1857 Great Rebellion up until the First World War, was built on a systematically divisive agenda that targeted casteist and religious affiliations. Traditional historiographies have tended to portray a rigid division of castes with the priestly Brahmins at the top, followed by the warrior caste of the Kshatriyas, the merchant Vaishyas, and at the bottom of the ladder, the Shudras, comprising farmers and artisans. Beyond this stringent four-tier structure were the Dalits, or the untouchables. Misra, deviating from this approach, proposes that before the British arrived in the nineteenth century, the divisions among the various categories of Hindus were not rigid, and often there were inter-caste struggles on supremacy. She notes:
… throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Brahman elites had been involved in disputes with ‘kingly’ warriors and land controllers about who possessed higher status. British enquiries into these matters were seized upon by Brahmin literati as an opportunity to settle these controversies to their own advantage. They duly reported that the ancient laws of Hinduism reflected a religiously authorized hierarchy...This order, they claimed, was based on a divinely ordained Hindu cosmology according to which individuals were born or re-born into the caste they merited by virtue of their dutiful action (dharma) in a previous life.
Consequently, after the Revolt of 1857, the British created special provisions in property laws and job quotas which incentivized Indians to seek a certain caste status. This resulted in the rise of a new religiosity, what Misra calls a “sacralized martial culture”. Dalit groups tended to adopt high-caste practices (a phenomenon known as ‘sanskritization’) and were welcomed into the upper caste fold by reform groups such as the Arya Samaj.
Such posturing, however, was not restricted to casteist considerations alone. There was a growing divide between Hindus and Muslims, arising out of an “intense competition for work, space and respect”. The British further stoked these latent fires. As Misra writes, “For many Hindus and Congressmen the most egregious act of colonial gerrymandering was the creation of separate electorates for Muslims.” By the late 1930s, Hindu-Muslim riots had become a commonality, with the police turning a blind eye to the violence.
It was in this backdrop of rising caste/communal tensions, accompanied by economic crises, that a steady rise in nationalist sentiment was witnessed. Mahatma Gandhi was gaining prominence as a campaigner of civil disobedience. The militant atheism of the likes of Bhagat Singh and Chandrashekhar Azad fired the imagination of scores of youngsters to free their motherland from the yoke of foreign rule. With drastic changes in the international scenario in the aftermath of the Second World War, it was a matter of time before the ‘colonial temple’ was demolished. Given the scope of the book perhaps, Misra’s treatment of the period immediately preceding India’s independence is rather cursory. Interested readers should visit Freedom at Midnight (1975) by Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins, or Alex von Tunzelmann’s Indian Summer (2007), which detail not only the political parleying that led to the demise of the Raj, but also the personal relationships of the dramatis personae.
An uneasy truce
India’s religious and cultural diversity has entailed an uneasy truce in the country’s public life. The country’s birth as an independent state was scarred by the trauma of Partition, with the subcontinent being cleaved into two distinct nation states founded on religious identity — secular India and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. The Partition was one of the bloodiest episodes in modern history, resulting in the death of over 250,000 people. The scale of human migration and the violence it unleashed were unprecedented in the region’s history.
Having devoted nearly half the book to this phase in India’s tumultuous history, Misra moves on to chronicling independent India’s tryst with destiny. The collapse of the colonial temple called for a new approach to India’s development, one that entailed fuller representation of the many dissenting voices that had characterized the pre-independence years. As Misra says, “Modern Indian history is not merely about storming, but also about building the temple.” Her analysis, she points out, differs considerably from traditional interpretations of modern Indian history, namely, liberal, Marxist, and subaltern. Liberal commentators tend to portray a grand westernizing image of 21st century India, replete with shining malls and glitzy office spaces. Marxist theorists look upon India’s growth trajectory as one of uninhibited inequality, in which the economic elites have systematically crushed the faceless poor. Finally, the subaltern school’s interpretation is similar to the Marxists’ in that it sees a definite divide between the elites and the others, but its view is that this divide is more cultural than economic, the British influence having raised a generation “Indian in name, but alien in spirit”.
Misra discards each of these interpretations as erroneous — since they do not capture India’s “complex and halting evolution into a very peculiar kind of modern nation”. India’s inequitable growth, she argues, has been an outcome of the contravening impulses of hierarchy versus equality (as epitomized by caste struggles), rationality versus superstition, and modernity versus tradition. The starkest example of this struggle was the determination of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, to develop India as a scientific superpower. Nehru’s stance was in marked contrast to the arcadian vision of his mentor, Mahatma Gandhi. It was under Nehru that the country’s successful atomic energy program took root, and he directed considerable energy toward establishing the Indian Institutes of Technology, globally renowned today as centers of engineering excellence.
However, Nehru’s economic policies, the central theme of which was economic planning, failed to effect real change on the ground. This was particularly so in farming, where co-operative schemes to raise agricultural productivity backfired. His death in 1964 in the backdrop of India’s humiliating defeat by China left a deep crater in Indian politics, and it was to take a few years before national politics could find its feet again. Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi was to emerge from the shadows as a shrewd tactician, one who would go on to personify a flagrantly partisan brand of politics.
Misra devotes sizeable attention to the excesses of the ‘Emergency’ — the period between 1975 and 1977 when Indira Gandhi suspended civil liberties and adopted authoritarian rule to avoid relinquishing the prime minister’s chair after an adverse decision of the Allahabad High Court challenging her election to the Indian Parliament. The Emergency proved to be a defining moment for Indian democracy. The iron hand with which Sanjay Gandhi, Indira’s errant son, enforced his ramshackle decrees diluted the misgivings of anyone who had bemoaned the red tapism that seemed synonymous with democracy in India. The most dreaded of Sanjay’s many experiments was nasbandi (forced vasectomy). A means to effect family planning, nasbandi, under Sanjay’s tutelage, became a military-style operation with attractive incentives for ‘motivators’ who had to come up with a certain number of successful cases to be eligible for them. Little wonder, the program assumed draconian proportions. Misra writes:
Soon vasectomy clinics sprang up in the poorer areas of towns, and though volunteers were supposed to be of reproductive age and already to have had three children, young boys, old men, vagrants and anyone in any way dependent on the state found themselves pressed by ‘motivators’ into having vasectomies. In September 1976 mobile nasbandi vans, and armies of ‘motivators’ seeking to fill their quotas, began descending on the countryside. In Satara, police rounded up eligible men, took them to rural health centers and more or less coercively sterilized them.
Indira was at worst an active participant; at best, a silent bystander in her son’s egregious abuse of power. “Paradoxically,” Misra writes, “India’s half-baked experiment in dictatorship had the effect of entrenching democracy.” The next general elections, held in 1977 after the suspension of the Emergency, routed the Congress and resulted in the Janata Party forming the government in Delhi. Though the experiment was short-lived and Indira Gandhi returned to power in 1980, it was the first time that a non-Congress government had assumed power at the center.
The 1980s were marked by a rise in secessionist tendencies, most virulently in the western border state of Punjab. The Nirankaris, a heretical Sikh sect, demanded the creation of a separate Sikh state of Khalistan. Their leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was a charismatic orator, whose call to possessing arms and reinforcing Sikh identity was taken quite literally by many young men. Matters came to a head in 1982, when Bhindranwale and his men installed themselves in Amritsar’s Golden Temple, the Sikhs’ holiest shrine. Throughout 1983, Indira Gandhi’s government carried out negotiations with different stakeholders, but to little effect. The threat of Punjab declaring nationhood was now very real. In June 1984, after much dithering, Gandhi ordered the Indian Army to storm the Golden Temple. Operation Blue Star, as it was called, turned into a blood-spilling three-day siege, killing nearly 600 people. The timing of the operation coincided with an important Sikh festival. The entire exercise was, therefore, viewed by Sikhs as an act of sacrilege and in the aftermath several Sikh soldiers resigned from their positions in protest.
However, the most glaring consequences of the operation were yet to unfold. In the early hours of October 31, 1984, Indira Gandhi was gunned down by her Sikh bodyguards. Anti-Sikh hysteria gripped Delhi and nearly 3,000 Sikhs were butchered over the next two days. Rajiv Gandhi, Indira’s other son — Sanjay had been killed in a bizarre air crash in 1980 — assumed the mantle of prime ministership overnight. The rebellion in Punjab died down. A secessionist movement that had threatened the integrity of the country was subdued by a tragic series of events and at the cost of thousands of lives.
While Misra’s treatment of Sikh separatism and Rajiv Gandhi’s political capital is uniformly scholarly, she comes truly into her own in tackling the most serious political upheaval of the ’90s: the Mandir agitation. Through the 1980s, a series of events, most notably the Shah Bano case – in which Rajiv Gandhi overruled a court order granting alimony to a Muslim woman after pressure from Islamic outfits – engendered a feeling among Hindus that a policy of appeasement toward Muslims was being played out by the Congress government in violation of their own interests. Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) leader Lal Krishna Advani sensed this alienation and launched the Ram mandir (temple) movement in 1990. It was aimed at demolishing Babar’s mosque in Ayodhya, the birthplace of Lord Ram, and erecting a Ram temple in its place. Sections of Hindus had long held that Babar had destroyed a Ram temple at the site and built a mosque over the temple ruins in the 16th century.
On December 6, 1992, to the cries of raucous supporters, Advani’s rath yatra (the march of the chariot) reached the site. By evening, the mosque had been demolished — an event that was to have far-reaching repercussions on Indian polity. The riots sparked by the demolition led to the death of over 2,000 people nationwide. It also placed Hindutva, the BJP’s avowed policy of keeping Hindu interests paramount, firmly in the political saddle. Misra calls this the “leveling of the temple” — the ascendancy of a “xenophobic, hierarchical, bellicose and reactionary” ideology that stormed the bastions of Congress’s electoral success.
Always interested in the insidious workings of caste in India, Misra is nearly gleeful at the contribution that the rise of a lower caste consciousness has made to the country’s political arithmetic. This includes, but is not limited to, the controversial move to reserve seats for lower castes in government jobs and educational institutes as a way to bring them on economic parity with upper castes. Misra is an unabashed admirer of Laloo Prasad Yadav, “scourge of Brahmanhood and political showman extraordinaire”. Laloo, whose initiation into politics was marred by allegations of corruption and nepotism, has emerged as a messiah for the Yadav community in the Hindi heartland. In his latest avatar as India’s railway minister, he has displayed a rare efficiency that has transformed the face of the Indian railway. So popular is Laloo’s rustic brand of management that he is now a regular invitee to top-grade management schools to deliver sermons on what makes the rural hinterland tick.
It is the paradox of a public persona like Laloo Prasad that exemplifies the larger undercurrents driving India’s much-vaunted growth. Across classes and social strata, there is a raving scramble to better oneself, a fight aided by the country’s democratic setup. Of course, the results of such a chase aren’t always desirable. In Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger (2008), Balram Halwai, a small-town bloke from Bihar, moves to Gurgaon, the software outsourcing hub of India, to drive the car of a rich businessman. The novel traces Balram’s disillusionment with the ‘fast life’ of the metro, a lifestyle that both repels and seduces him. Humiliated by his downtrodden status, Balram commits a brutal murder which, rather than proving his nemesis, opens the gates of opportunity and prosperity for him. Interminably bleak, The White Tiger is a scathing portrayal of the societal divisions wrought by a fast-changing economic scenario. As India finds its feet in IT and nuclear energy, and comes to be identified as the world’s back office, it must do more to make this growth all-encompassing, and ensure that the benefits of globalization percolate down to the poor.
Stephen Cohen, senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, once wondered if India will one day emerge as a global power or forever stay “arriving”. Like Luce and Guha, Misra is of the cautious hope that India will surpass its status as a rising power. Returning to the temple metaphor, she concludes that Vishnu’s temple is in danger of being displaced by fidelity to Hanuman, the monkey God. Himself a disciple of Lord Ram, Hanuman is looked upon as a more approachable deity than the patriarchal Vishnu. Large temples devoted to him are sprouting across the length of the country, each competing with the other in grandeur and finesse. Much revered for his entrepreneurial skills in the Ramayana, Hanuman has come to symbolize resourcefulness and communication for the new India. To Misra, Hanuman is the harbinger of India’s fluidity, chaos and compromised continuity — an apt almighty for a democracy that’s really a functional anarchy.