Shruti Kapila’s Violent Fraternity: Indian Political Thought in the Global Age review: The violent making of a people

As India, under Hindutva, pursues the ‘unfinished agenda’ of Partition 75 years on, Shruti Kapila’s book helps readers make sense of the deep-rooted violence in India’s polity

Updated - July 22, 2022 08:36 pm IST

Published - July 22, 2022 04:59 pm IST

The fable about the birth of the Indian republic through a non-violent, inclusive national movement overwhelms alternative interpretations, which are less formidable. Historical revisionism inspired by Hindutva questions orthodoxies of the Nehruvian era, but ideological blinders limit its capacity for any serious inquiry. Shruti Kapila calls into question some dominant assumptions of the historiography of the national movement, and pulls off nothing short of a scholarly feat in this exceptional account of the political thoughts that shaped the Indian republic — and continues to shape it as it is being remade into a Hindu Rashtra.

In Violent Fraternity: Indian Political Thought in the Global Age, Kapila argues that violence was not merely incidental, but integral to the founding of the nation. The violence that pulverised the heartland left the foreign master untouched, but wantonly drew the blood of the kin. In fact, violence and fraternity coexist and perhaps, one can only exist alongside the other, as the title suggests. What appears as a passing mention in the textbook version of Indian history, ‘partition violence,’ was indeed civil war the author tells us. One pre-eminent thinker of the age, B.G. Tilak, anticipating the conservative German theorist, Carl Schmitt, considered the ability to raise the sword against kin as the ultimate political act.

‘Civil war’

B.R. Ambedkar saw the Hindu-Muslim strife as an ongoing civil war, and he, like Vallabhai Patel thought separation would bring peace and tranquillity. Partition was meant to be the end of strife, but as it turns out, 75 years later, India is pursuing under Hindutva the ‘unfinished agenda’ of Partition. Burrowing through the lives and thoughts of Tilak, Gandhi, Har Dayal and his band of Ghadaris, V.D. Savarkar, Mohammad Iqbal, and Vallabhai Patel, Kapila builds her argument on how violence and fraternity, unity and separation, interact in the search and assertion of sovereignty. The protagonists are all thinkers and actors. As it happened, there were multiple notions of sovereignty, which makes violence inevitable.

The republican state would later claim to be the sole custodian of sovereignty, but Gandhi and Tilak both conceptualised sovereignty beyond the control of the state, institutions and legality. That anti-statism would linger in the political culture of India even after independence, while the republican state would generously borrow instruments of control, such as the sedition law, from imperial structures. Gandhi and Tilak shared a view of sovereignty unconstrained by the state, but they diverged on the question of violence. Their views on the Gita took opposite directions. For Gandhi, Swaraj is about being in control of the self first of all; not the ability to kill, but the willingness to die makes the political act; and his own death was Gandhi’s ultimate political act; and his assassin considered the killing a political act.

Popular will

The chapter ‘People’s War,’ on the communal violence that grips the subcontinent ahead of the arrival of the republic, is an outstanding part of this exceptional work. The civil war signified ‘the demarcation and delimitation of the people in their bounded and national sense.’ It was the birth of The People. Patel, Ambedkar and Nehru were in pursuit of establishing a sovereign unitary state as the one run by the colonial masters had become fluid. The outgoing rulers saw the violence not as an administrative challenge but as revolution, the insurrection of the popular will. As power changes hand, and the violence continues, the emerging leaders of the emerging republic, including Nehru and Patel, pleaded distance from the ‘crowd.’ Masses are the custodian of sovereignty, their violence had legitimacy, and Patel himself would tell people to not wait for the police but act in self-defence. For mob action, there is no individual culpability, either of the leader or the actors — a point none other than Nehru would concede in June 1947.

The book opens with a Freudian fable on how close could a family of hedgehogs move in a cold setting to keep themselves warm but not too close for comfort. It is the question of intimacy and separation that undergirds the formation of a community. For Gandhi, the Hindus and Muslims had to be separate and together — no inter-religious marriage, please; and Dalits and caste Hindus had to be together — no separation, but the upper castes can only be nudged to concede space to the rest, they can of course not be compelled to marry outside caste. Still, “they are part of an indivisible family,” Gandhi thought of Dalits and Hindus. For Ambedkar, the Muslims and the Hindus had become separate nations, and a civil war was on for decades, and separation was the best route to coexistence. The Hindu-Muslim relations were one of estrangement, in Ambedkar’s view, but the Hindu-Dalit relationship was one of master and slave, the intimacy of violence. The reordering of the Hindu social order, Ambedkar thought, was essential for the dawn of a new republican fraternity. The universal, perpetual monarchy of the Brahmin had no global parallel. While Ambedkar sought inspiration in Buddhism, Savarkar and Tilak shared a disdain for Buddhism which they believed hindered the rise of the nation.

New political concepts

Ambedkar today is part of the Hindutva pantheon, though its troll army might occasionally count Ambedkarites among enemies of the nation along with Muslims, Christians and Marxists. The rise of Hindutva — what the author calls its ‘quilting’, ‘totalising’ impact ‘that connects disconnected elements’ is redrawing the lines of who constitute people in contemporary India. Hindutva now uses the strong state to advance itself, to be the sole custodian of sovereignty. Hindutva “brooks no interpretation, only demanding either affirmation of negation.” According to the writer, “Hindutva is a theory of violence, in search of its history.” Savarkar’s excavation of history leads him to find new enemies being confronted by a new “warlike generation.” It is through wars that the nation advances. Savarkar inspires two assassins four decades apart — Madan Lal Dhingra and Nathuram Godse, but “Hindutva forged a new political language for the eruption of a new fraternity.” Its conception of fraternity, violence and sovereignty hold sway in contemporary India.

Attempts to critique the Hindutva hegemony of our times often assume a notion of original republicanism that is used as a touchstone. This volume takes apart many claims of the conventional narrative of India’s tryst with republicanism with breathtaking sweep, refreshing originality, and painstaking rigour. It invalidates received wisdom in a bulk command action, and illuminates our present. It is as unsettling as it is meant to.

Violent Fraternity: Indian Political Thought in the Global Age; Shruti Kapila, Penguin Random House, ₹899.

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