Malevolent Republic: In new book, KS Komireddi's opinions and prejudices lead to contradictions
KS Komireddi is a gifted writer but he arms himself with opinions and prejudices. Although he tries to be fair they get in the way of his judgement and lead to contradictions.
At first glance, the author seems fair in that there are only a couple of leaders he does not castigate — although Narendra Modi still comes highest on his list of hates.
Komireddi is a gifted writer but he arms himself with opinions and prejudices. Although he tries to be fair they get in the way of his judgement and lead to contradictions.
Popular histories of India are a relatively new phenomenon and until the 1990s the only available histories were. The history of independent India began to be considered a subject meriting study only after India as a democracy was regarded as stable enough – when Mrs Gandhi lost power in 1977 and a new government was elected without a political crisis happening. But a greater milestone in Indian history after Independence was the economic liberalisation of 1991 under PV Narasimha Rao when India officially abandoned Nehruvian socialism and embraced the free market. Sunil Khilnani’s The Idea of India (1997) was the first popular examination of modern Indian history, looking specifically at what Nehru’s policies had meant and treating 1991 as the completion of a chapter. With India’s ‘growth story’ attracting worldwide attention it was only natural that India’s present and past be re-examined and a large amount of non-fiction – scarce earlier – emerged, including popular histories such as by Ramachandra Guha (India After Gandhi, 2007).
KS Komireddi’s Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India, recently published, is more certain in its judgements than Guha’s book. Popular histories such as the books by Komireddi and Guha do not go about writing history as tentative and speculative. Rather than pose questions about events, their causes and ramifications, they write vividly - and with certitude over the implications of key happenings. They are not fictionalised recreations like that of Lapierre and Collins’ Freedom at Midnight (1975) but still offer more opinions than histories do. Guha, for instance, gives India 50 percent marks when evaluating its achievements as a democracy. But where Guha still offered history as a reconstruction, Komireddi writes as if with full knowledge of actualities, and if he were awarding percentages India might not make the grade.
At first glance, Komireddi seems fair in that there are only a couple of leaders he does not castigate — although Narendra Modi still comes highest on his list of hates. In his acknowledgements page, he describes Modi as ‘the worst human being ever elected Prime Minister, in the office hallowed by Nehru and Shastri’ though that does not mean he has such good things to say about those earlier. But such a line in the acknowledgements page still presents a problem. We generally think that political figures should be judged by their public doings rather than by their supposed moral qualities. It is by evaluating their public doings and their consequences that we arrive at each one’s significance, since we cannot ‘know’ them personally. The difficulty with writing about public figures as ‘human beings’ is that it leads to prejudiced inferences about what personally motivates them, when ‘motivation’ is a dangerous angle for a historian; he or she cannot know that. Komireddi is a gifted writer but he arms himself with opinions and prejudices. Although he tries to be fair they get in the way of his judgement and lead to contradictions.
KS Komireddi belongs to a liberal Hyderabad family and his free-thinking father gave him his early schooling in a madrassa to enable him to imbibe secular values – since there was communal conflict in Hyderabad. The prologue in the book deals partly with this childhood and his friendship with a Muslim named Murad. Murad’s story becomes an entry point for Komireddi to talk about Hindutva although, to be fair, he describes the Nizam’s nefarious doings in the past as well. It is also significant that he blames the general backwardness of Muslims in India not to Hindus (as Pankaj Mishra does) but to secularists who – in the name of respecting other religions – deferred to Muslim bigots, as ‘community leaders’.
Malevolent Republic is in two parts, the first one dealing with India’s political history before Modi and the second about rule under him. One’s first disquiet with Komireddy’s perspective emerges when he starts describing the presumed ‘feelings’ of political leaders. He evidently respects Lal Bahadur Shastri deeply but one wonders at the following sentence about Ayub Khan at Shastri’s funeral:
“Ayub had come to venerate the Indian premier’s integrity and despise his own foreign minister. Remorseful, he offered himself as a pallbearer.”
This may be affecting to Indians who similarly regard Shastri’s premature death as a development that had unfortunate effects upon the country, but is a historian allowed to attribute such emotions to figures in history? People may not take exception when good things are said but attributing negative feelings/motives can become problematic. Here is a passage about Feroze Gandhi’s place in the Nehru household:
“Kamala (Nehru), lonely in a crowded palace, found comfort in the companionship of a young freedom fighter called Feroze Gandhi. Their closeness sparked rumours of an affair. Nehru felt injured, but was scarcely in a position to demand fidelity from his wife. Kamala, in any case, died of tuberculosis and Feroze transferred his affections to Indira.”
Komireddi does not give us the sources from which he drew the insinuation about Feroze’s ‘transferring of affections to Indira’ and it could be Dom Moraes biography of Indira Gandhi, mentioned in the ‘further reading’ list. But a biographer is still only dealing with the person while a historian, who uses it, tries to link it to the fortunes of a nation. Mrs Gandhi’s childhood, for instance, leads Komireddi to explain her doings through her psychology. This sense of history attached to the psychology of political leaders is perhaps where Komireddi’s approach is most questionable. Historical events owe to such a complex array of causes, economic and political, that the psychology of a participating individual becomes too small a factor to be considered significant. Would the respective childhoods of Rajiv Gandhi or Dr Manmohan Singh shed light on the goings-on in their tenures?
Actually, it is writing about the Rajiv and Manmohan eras that the author is most engaging and he treats them both even-handedly - although his preoccupation with Hindi majoritarianism introduces some unforeseen distortions. Here, for instance, is his description of the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi in November 1984:
“….the police also stopped recording or acting on complaints brought to them by Sikhs. Instead, they went to the Sikh-heavy neighbourhoods of the city and disarmed the Sikhs. No sooner did they leave than armed mobs of Hindus, led by the city’s familiar Congress Party leaders, appeared on the scene and slaughtered Sikhs. Dozens of Sikh women were gang-raped by Hindu men.”
My thrust here is that the riots in Delhi were engineered by a secular party and had in its ranks a large number of people other than Hindus and this was certainly not a Hindu-Sikh conflagration. Congress workers who went on the rampage were perhaps from other religions as well. The question here is whether identifying the murderers and rapists as ‘Hindus’ does not cast doubt on Komireddi’s political/religious non-partisanship. To my mind Hindus and Sikhs not only fought Muslims together during Partition but the cause of the Delhi riots was the assassination of Mrs Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. Mrs Gandhi was not a Hindu icon and was even hated by the Hindu right-wing.
Rajiv Gandhi’s blundering efforts to court both Muslims (chiefly the Shah Bano case) and Hindus (allowing the foundations for a future temple within the Babri mosque) when he was losing electoral appeal comes in for some severe criticism as does the Congress’ treatment of PV Narasimha Rao, a far-sighted Congress prime minister whose death was not even mourned. He also recognises the shame in someone of Dr Manmohan Singh’s stature manipulated from the shadows by Sonia Gandhi, she holding the power and he shouldering the responsibility. But Komireddi’s severest reprimands are still reserved for Narendra Modi.
Hindutva and the rise of Narendra Modi being treated as a ghastly mistake is actually incongruous since the book itself provides clear and convincing reasons for why it was inevitable. In the preceding chapters he describes how after 1947, in order to do good, the system (aided by historians like Romila Thapar) deliberately falsified Indian history by airbrushing the doings of Muslim rulers, turning a blind eye to the hostility between people of the two religions and furthering the agenda of sterilising the past:
“Such well-intentioned sanitisation of the past was never, in the long run, going to withstand the awakening of people to their history or sustain an inclusive nationalism. The encounter between ‘the strictest and the most extreme form of monotheism’ and ‘the richest and most varied polytheism’ Octavio Paz wrote in his luminous study of India, left a deep wound on the psyche of its people….To come to terms with the past, to move on from it, we must first acknowledge and accept it. A thousand years of Indian history were obfuscated.”
When Komireddi is providing convincing reasons for the inevitability of Hindu-Muslim conflict, can he also show deep shock at how it eventually became manifested with the strengthening of the BJP and the unstoppable rise of Narendra Modi? As may be expected, he commences with a vivid description of the Gujarat riots but downplays the provocation: the burning to death of 58 Hindu pilgrims. The subsequent Gujarat riots were horrific and Komireddi depending upon them to debunk Modi’s developmental plank in 2014 may not be unfitting but there is an evaluative excess that is still irrational:
“The belief of the RSS – to establish a Hindu state, to revenge the trauma of Islamic invasions and Partition on the bodies of Indian Muslims, to demote the minorities to the status of second-class citizens – were never incidental to Modi’s politics.”
Here again, Komireddi’s analysis depends on his (perhaps excessive) reading of psychology but the question here is whether such a scenario can ever come to pass. Let us just consider the term ‘minorities’, which tends to imply Islam. We live in a globalised world in which information is passed on so swiftly that repercussions are immediate; a minor power like India can hardly act on its own population in arbitrary ways. Globally, Muslims are not even the minority and the widespread fear of Islamic extremism is indicative of Islam’s influence. The Islamic world (Sunni and not Shia) has the money, the global influence and the military might to force the super powers to act and the brutality of Islamic State makes ‘Hindu terror’ even laughable. Before presenting such alarming scenarios, therefore, should not a writer consider the plausibility of their actualisation? Before the Hindu right-wing is likened to the Nazis – as is often done – we must at least look ‘Hindu India’s’ capacity for world domination. Narendra Modi’s psychology is of little consequence because of the limits on how far India can go without inviting sanctions. Komireddi’s childhood friend Murad migrating to Pakistan after riots is not indicative of what Muslims actually face. Even the most bigoted Hindus need to understand that Muslims can only be equals.
Komireddi has several grievances against Modi but I will conclude by examining only one more – his absolutism. That he is authoritarian there is little doubt but the assertion that needs questioning is that the democratic basis of the BJP has been destroyed by him. The Sangh Parivar was once the stronghold of the educated middle classes but it has reached its present position by admitting all sorts of people; even the RSS, once considered disciplined, has hence transformed. Komireddi, because he has already judged Modi as an absolute dictator based on his ‘psychology’, attributes occurrences like lynching to Modi’s design. But the issue is also whether the expansion of the BJP’s influence has not seriously weakened its ideology/political identity. To extend this proposition if every Indian joined the BJP would the party become stronger or actually weaker? As counter-explanation for ‘cow-based’ violence, as the winning of elections became its primary aim, the BJP could have lost sight of its own composition and its cadres are now perhaps infiltrated increasingly by undesirables. They can hardly help ‘Hindu India’ regain its ‘past glory’ but it seems as though the party leadership is obliged to defend all people – even criminals – if they merely denote their causes as ‘cow-protection’ or ‘patriotic’. The domination of a political party by an unmanageable rabble may not be true democracy but neither is it rule by an absolute dictator, which is how KS Komireddi portrays Modi’s India.
MK Raghavendra is a film scholar and author of seven books including The Oxford India Short Introduction to Bollywood (2016). He is deeply interested in social, political and cultural issues in India, an interest that informs his books on film.
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