Perry Anderson: Why India Was Partitioned

Roundup: Talking About History

Perry Anderson teaches history at UCLA.

By 1945, the era of Gandhi was over, and that of Nehru had begun. It is conventional to dwell on the contrasts between the two, but the bearing of these on the outcome of the struggle for independence has remained by and large in the shadows. Nor are the contrasts themselves always well captured. Nehru was a generation younger; of handsome appearance; came from a much higher social class; had an elite education in the West; lacked religious beliefs; enjoyed many an affair. So much is well known. Politically more relevant was the peculiar nature of his relationship to Gandhi. Inducted into the national movement by his wealthy father, a pillar of Congress since the 1890s, he fell under Gandhi’s spell in his late twenties, at a time when he had few political ideas of his own. A decade later, when he had acquired notions of independence and socialism Gandhi did not share, and was nearly forty, he was still writing to him: ‘Am I not your child in politics, though perhaps a truant and errant child?’ The note of infantilism was not misplaced; the truancy, in practice, little more than coquetry. Like so many others, dismayed by Gandhi’s scuttling of Non-Cooperation in 1922, in despair at his fast against the introduction of Untouchable electorates in 1932, baffled by his reasons for suspending civil disobedience in 1934, he nevertheless each time abased himself before his patron’s judgment.
Sacralisation of the national movement? ‘I used to be troubled sometimes at the growth of this religious element in our politics,’ but ‘I knew well that there was something else in it, something which supplied a deep inner craving of human beings.’ The fiasco of Non-Cooperation? ‘After all, he was the author and originator of it, and who could be a better judge of what it was and what it was not. And without him where was our movement?’ The fast unto death at Poona? ‘For two days I was in darkness with no light to show the way out, my heart sinking when I thought of some results of Gandhiji’s action … And then a strange thing happened to me. I had quite an emotional crisis, and at the end of it I felt calmer and the future seemed not so dark. Bapu had a curious knack of doing the right thing at the psychological moment, and it might be that his action – impossible as it was to justify from my point of view – would lead to great results.’ The claim that God showed his displeasure with civil disobedience by visiting an earthquake on Bihar? He had been ‘dragged away from the anchor’ of his faith by Bapu’s announcement, but deciding his mentor’s action was right, ‘somehow managed to compromise’. For ‘what a wonderful man was Gandhiji, after all.’ All these avowals date from 1936, when Nehru was politically more radical – ‘inclining to a communist philosophy’ – than at any other time in his career. By 1939 he was simply exclaiming: ‘India cannot do without him.’
In this degree of psychological dependence, different strands were intertwined. Quasi-filial infatuation with Gandhi was not peculiar to Nehru, but the depth of parental affection – withheld, often with extraordinary harshness, from his own children – Gandhi felt for Nehru was unique. Mingled with these emotional bonds were calculations of mutual interest. So long as he operated in the ambit of Congress, Gandhi could count on Nehru never taking adult political issue with him, while as Gandhi’s favourite, Nehru could count on prevailing over rivals to head Congress, and after independence, to rule the country. Still, was there not even so an intellectual gulf between them? In one fundamental respect, indeed there was. Nehru never had any time for Gandhi’s extraterrestrial dreams or earthly archaisms. He was a strictly intramundane believer in the benefits of industry and modernity. Yet this was not a dividing line that mattered much, so long as state power was out of reach. Where the political outlook of the national movement under the Raj was concerned, there was far less distance between mentor and pupil than the contrast in their cultural backgrounds might have suggested...

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