Retrieving a History

MK Gandhi visiting Muslim refugees at Purana Qila in Delhi in September 1947 as they prepare to depart for Pakistan. STR / AFP / GETTY IMAGES
01 September, 2012

A RECENT BBC PROGRAMME showed Boris Johnson, the mayor of London and author of Johnson’s Life of London: The People who Made the City That Made the World (HarperCollins, 2011), inspecting the gigantic sculpture titled ‘Orbit’ in the company of Lakshmi Mittal, the steel magnate, and Anish Kapoor, the designer of this enormous steel tower built for the London Olympics of 2012. The mayor, with his hefty frame and mop of flaxen hair, and the two Indians who made Orbit as a permanent public artwork for the Olympic Park, all seemed to claim ownership of this work, in one way or another, and thereby to stake a claim in the renewal and refashioning of London as a city as important in the 21st century as it had been in the 19th and 20th centuries. Surely this controversial and ambitious British politician and journalist, belonging to the Conservative Party, could not do what he’s doing without the money and the talent of the two Indian men inspecting the humongous structure alongside him.

The scene of seemingly post-imperial, post-racial and post-modern collaboration and camaraderie reminded me with a jolt of three recent essays on the political history of modern India by the British Marxist and intellectual historian Perry Anderson, in the pages of the London Review of Books. Anderson, a long-time editor of the New Left Review, a professor of history at UCLA and a prolific essayist for the past half-century, has not previously written about India, so these three very long pieces—which together total nearly 50,000 words—may come as something of a surprise to Indian scholars. But even more surprising, for his admirers and readers in India, is his weirdly anachronistic reading of modern Indian history. In pursuit of his effort to render a scathing verdict on the Indian present, he has constructed a malign caricature of the Indian past, beginning with two relentless attacks on Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru.

In the first two of his three essays, devoted respectively to Gandhi and Nehru, Anderson’s zeal to demolish these idols and, by extension, to discredit the Independence movement, leads him unwittingly to a bombastic rhetorical tone that sounds more like Winston Churchill or the latter-day Tory defenders of the Raj than a preeminent British Marxist.

After declaring that “All countries have fond images of themselves, and big countries, inevitably, have bigger heads than others,” Anderson proceeds through a litany of tendentious claims: that the “idea of India” was a “European and not a local invention”; that the Independence movement did nothing to hasten British withdrawal—and indeed even prolonged the Raj; that the advances of the Japanese Army at the end of World War II in Southeast Asia, rather than any Indian efforts, provided the final blow to British rule in India. Anderson’s Gandhi is an almost unrecognisable figure: a charismatic leader and a “first-class organiser and fundraiser” to be sure, but also a religious zealot, a “stranger” to “real intellectual exchange” whose “homemade” faith was indelibly tinted with an ethos of Hindu supremacy. Anderson’s Nehru is an equally communal figure, a mediocre thinker and purple writer whose Congress bears the blame for Britain’s partition of India.