India’s Majoritarian Turn
Modi finishes the work of decolonization left incomplete by generations of Anglophile elites.
In October 2022, a few days before Rishi Sunak became the first British-Indian prime minister, the Tippu Express railway train from Bangalore to Mysore was renamed the Wodeyar Express after an erstwhile Hindu royal house of the region. The resultant howl in social media from Indian and western liberals was based on the fact that Tipu Sultan fought the British, whereas the Wodeyars were restored to the throne by them. True, but not the whole story. Tipu allied with French colonial forces and constantly sought help from the shah of Persia, the Ottoman sultan, and Afghan warlords. He was not fighting for “India” but rather his own Islamic fiefdom. The mythification of Tipu as a great and powerful Indian king was partially a product of his valorization by the British as a worthy opponent, as well as a product of post-independence Nehruvian amplification.
This episode was a small manifestation of a long-running debate over the British Raj. Post-colonial scholars attribute all of India’s problems to European exploitation between the sixteenth and early twentieth centuries. Their opponents point out that in that period there was no concept of a singular political entity known as India in the territorial form we observe today. There was a seat in Delhi under a crumbling Mughal suzerainty and a host of local secessionist powers opposed to any central authority. Modern India, with her parliamentary democracy, penal and procedural codes, Asiatic Societies, research designs, military attire, tea, cricket, boarding schools, railways, heavy industries, cartography, civil service, and common law, is a product of “imperial modernity,” to use the terminology of A.J.P. Taylor.
The topic of empire and its effects in India is not academic esoterica. It is a question on which hinges India’s strategic choices and foreign relations. American governments have long tried to bolster India as a natural liberal democratic heavyweight in Asia—the key word being liberal. In the words of George W. Bush in the early days of the War on Terror, India was a “vibrant, modern nation built on an ancient civilization; a force for stability and peace in one of the most strategically important regions in the world.” This sentiment was echoed by Barack Obama, who said the world will be safer if our two liberal democracies work together. Subsequently in that cause, India was designated a major non-NATO ally, with major civilian nuclear cooperation and regular naval and army training exercises. India also benefited from technology transfer as well as an overwhelming number of jobs provided by U.S. tech companies, both in India and the United States.
However, India remained equidistant between the power blocs. New Delhi steadfastly refused to transform the Quad into a military alliance, citing that India is the only country sharing a land border with China and, when push comes to shove, no one will come to hold India’s hand. While India is more antagonistic to China, with an active border dispute that flashes up from time to time, a cursory search of comments from the heavily online netizens of India will indicate not much love for a meddlesome and increasingly hyper-liberal America either. In the current conflict in Ukraine, India has declined to take America’s side over Russia.
None of this is unnatural. A major power is usually prudentially equidistant and non-aligned from all power blocs. India’s foreign policy isn’t idealistic. The Indo-Abrahamic framework that saw India getting close to Iran and the Arabs is a case in point. India’s history also dictates a natural skepticism of the West, especially European sanctimony about values. America’s early republic had a similar trajectory.
Most debates about India being a counterweight to China, or India being a global member of Joe Biden’s alliance of liberal democracies, are too simplistic. This is not the India of the unabashedly pro-western BJP government of the early noughties, most of whom wanted to emulate the American polity. This is a majoritarian India, one which is pre-modern in all but name. Monolithic analysis fails to explain why India is having border conflicts with China, tacitly supporting Russia in Ukraine, and simultaneously being a member of the BRICS, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, and the Quad. Most importantly, it misses the historical transformation currently taking place and the main ideological cause behind it all: the first true “decolonisation process” that is currently underway in India under the Modi government, the impact of which is understudied and crucial to assessing an emerging multipolarity.
In 2018, at a secret colloquium in Christ Church, Oxford, on the ethics of imperialism, I met an imperial civil servant of advanced age, one of the last of his generation to have been posted abroad. He pointed out that at the height of Victoriana the empire had troops and senior officers numbering in the thousands, and the entire subcontinent from Afghanistan to Burma was practically administered by an Indian officer class and Indian businessmen. The implication was that late European empires were more often than not a collaborative process and were acquired by balance of power over hundreds of years, not some random act of conquest.
Most European empires were actively courted and invited by locals, and most were governed by local proxies and manpower. Some of the most successful communities were Indians who worked under the empire in various global outposts—to paraphrase Naipaul, the forgotten backbone of the empire. In 1972, before being expelled, Uganda’s Indian population owned 90 percent of the country’s businesses and accounted for 90 percent of Ugandan tax revenues. Currently, according to the BBC, at around 1 percent of the population, they still contribute over 60 percent of Uganda’s tax revenues. The best and often only doctors and engineers were usually “Asian.” The story was similar from Fiji to Barbados.
The varied social evolution of places after colonization by Europeans can only be explained by two variables, history and established culture. By the late 16th century, the British found India as an advanced agrarian and mercantile society but with minimal science, industry, and modes of transport; a functioning export hierarchy, high literature, and classical architecture but a diffuse system in Mughal courts and martial order unable to control the imperial periphery.
Both Nehruvian socialists and the Hindu reactionaries have since tried to find an Indian golden age in the pre-modern era. The true imperial apogee prior to the British was perhaps the high Mughal period. The Mughal system was not directly administered by imperial authority but diffused under feudal tax-lords known as jagirdars. It often resulted in an extreme realpolitik regardless of faith or region, as well as local warlordism in the territorial periphery, similar to Europe during Richelieu. It also resulted in the first truly intermixed and national elite in the history of India, with Hindu Rajputs married to Muslim Mughals and holding important imperial posts. Religion didn’t automatically mean alliance, contrary to current historical revisionism. Hindu Marathas raided mostly Hindu Bengal, leading to Hindu folk songs recalling the dread of plunder. Southern powers such as Hyderabad, Marathas, and Mysore were likewise often at war with each other, siding with and taking help from the European powers.
Raj historian Zareer Masani writes:
The political collapse of the Mughal Empire resulted in an even less economically conducive state of affairs. Though not literally anarchy, it was a disintegration into regional warlordism with predictable results. Between 1750 and 1810, the loss of Mughal hegemony allowed new despotic rulers to revenue farm their conquered populations, seeing tax and rent demands increase to as much as 50 per cent of production (compared to only 5 to 6 per cent extracted in China during the same period) and levied largely to fund regional warfare.
The two most important aspects here are, first, the decline of the Mughal economy due to lack of science and industrialisation and, second, the formation of a nascent mercantile class loyal to the social order and not to any particular faith or region. It is often forgotten that Clive was helped by both Hindu businessmen as well as Muslim feudal lords in the battle of Plassey.
The British, primarily due to commercial interests, were initially reticent about changing the governing structure of the country. What they did, however, was establish penal and procedural codes. The eradication of hereditary hierarchy under that rule of law was unprecedented. The newly Western-educated upper middle class never before saw an aristocrat dragged into a customary law court. The abolition of female infanticide and widow burning, as well as the abolition of religious jizya tax, angered both the established Hindu and Muslim elite, while creating for the first time a truly national middle-class loyal to the British. Integration of a single market resulted in the exodus of traditional North and West Indian business communities to new port cities of Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras. Railways connected India and made it feel like a single political entity for the first time.
The 1857 mutiny, later mythicized as a war of independence, was the first test of loyalty of the newly formed and educated Indian middle class. A handful of local warlords and disgruntled elites, enraged by the rapidly changing social dynamics, aspired to return to feudalism. Unable to find a unitary symbol of national unity before the British, the rebels reverted back to what they thought was the closest thing to a pre-British national symbol under a banner of authority they themselves chipped away at for the previous two hundred years: the impoverished, old and powerless puppet Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah as a figurehead of the ill-fated rebellion.
The result was the exact opposite of what the mutineers expected. The new powerful merchant class were loyal to the British for providing order, profit, and common market. The intellectuals did not want to go back to the dark days of religious taxation, widow burning, and warlordism. The rebellion lacked strategic cohesion between Hindu and Muslim leaders, and without a strong center, cash-flow, discipline, and brains trust, collapsed under a crushing counterattack. By the 1880s with the end of Company rule and the formation of the Raj, late imperial India was borderless, unified, socially coherent, meritocratic, hierarchical, and, in the elite level, unprejudiced, to a level modern India can only dream of. The “British-Indian” empire, to use Robert Tombs’ terminology, was a story of rediscovery and exploration, or art, architecture, mechanisation, anthropology, science, history, and literature by upper class Indians, under the guidance of Anglo education.
India post-independence was dominated by a Western-educated but homegrown Fabian intelligentsia, a strain of which is still found in former UN Under-Secretary General Shashi Tharoor arguing for reparations from Britain, or the likes of Pankaj Mishra and Priyamvada Gopal holding comfortable academic sinecures in the West. A true decolonisation of India in practice would have meant wrecking the entire edifice of modern India, including constitutional secularism, a common tongue in the English language, and equality under the law, concepts alien prior to their imposition by British. Tharoor et al., in reality, were no match for the true decolonizers: the pre-modernist majoritarians.
The strongman worship tradition in India remained dormant under the British but returned immediately after the early years of the republic. Lacking a Millian tradition of institutional liberty, India was warned by the framers of its constitution not to succumb to the idea of Bhakti, or adulation. The current supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi call themselves Modi-Bhakts. A Supreme Court Justice recently claimed Modi to be an “internationally acclaimed visionary” and a “versatile genius who thinks globally and acts locally.” Not only the judiciary but the legislature and the nominally neutral civil service have all fallen in behind the ruling party. Americans worried about the IRS targeting conservatives can still rely on a conservative Supreme Court, conservative state governments, and the Second Amendment to challenge any centralized tyranny. In India, according to recent reports, over 90 percent of Central Bureau Investigation is now targeted towards the opposition. The legislature, judiciary, and civil service are now arms of majoritarianism.
Hindu majoritarianism is an understandable reaction in a country historically ruled by minoritarian Islamic dynasties and one with two nuclear rivals on its borders. Modi is a phenomenally popular politician among the working class, compared to the earlier anglophile elite leadership of the earlier BJP. They are as different as the GOP led by George H.W. Bush and by Donald Trump. It mirrors similar divisions from the time of the British Raj. The residual Anglophile elite, still English educated and mannered, mostly upper caste, have tried to be the growth engine of the current empire. The pro-imperial officer class as well as the Cambridge-educated Fabian nationalists were on opposite sides but were both thoroughly Anglicized in culture and spirit.
But the group that is the most ascendant are the cultural chauvinists, a mediocre and unoriginal elite, deferential to unitary power and disdainful of what they consider alien knowledge, oblivious of historic ties and patrimony, envious and cancrine about any form of success and superiority. Recently, speaking about current Indian foreign policy, India’s minister of external affairs Dr S. Jaishankar bluntly reminded Europeans, “I have lived with a lot of things that you have said and done that I don’t like. Now sometimes you will have to hear it from me, too. Live with it.” His book, The India Way, hypothesizes how a war between China and America will encourage more strategic space for India to be a major power—a narrow calculation, which international relations scholars might cautiously term as “buck-passing.”
What the liberal post-colonialists failed to comprehend was that the majoritarian right are turning out to be the real decolonizers. What the British for the first time gave India was a detached and orderly imperial class with a common law, practicing a common tongue, a system that replicated the broad detached suzerainty in Delhi but without the often-changing hands between different powers. Because there was no India as we know in its modern conception, expecting a flourishing Burkeanism in Indian conservatism is optimistic. Burkean equilibrium is an instinct specific to its origin and cultural ethos. A potential afterstage of decolonisation might very well be similar to pre-British India.
I returned to Calcutta for the first time in more than half a decade in 2022. The movie in flight was a Bollywood chartbuster titled RRR, or “Rise, Roar, Revolt,” an absurd depiction of the Raj where British officers commit genocide when not stopped by heroes defying any laws of physics. It’s especially absurd because in the 1920s British ICS officers in India numbered around 800. Outright authoritarianism is simply not possible with those numbers.
Calcutta, meanwhile, had an actual communist one-party rule for the majority of the post-independence period, and the state of Bengal now faces homelessness of epic proportions, street hawkery, practically non-existent municipal services, rapid degrowth and brain drain, and almost daily political violence between Hindus and Muslims. After decades of being treated as second-class citizens in their homeland under the communists, the Hindus have once again started voting en masse for the BJP. Hindu nationalism has returned to the birthplace of its modern theoretical founder, Syama Prasad Mukherjee.
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I saw a roadside statue of Rammohun Roy garlanded by the local BJP leader. I hesitated to dwell on the irony. Rammohun opposed idolatry and was harassed in his lifetime by fanatics for supporting widow-remarriage and opposing widow-burning. It was Rammohun who in 1823 wrote his famous letter to Lord Amherst. Agonizing over British funds dedicated to religious schools, he wrote that a “Sanskrit system of education would be the best calculated to keep this country in darkness.” Better would be “a more liberal and enlightened system of instruction, embracing mathematics, natural philosophy, chemistry, anatomy, with other useful sciences.” Roy addressed himself to “that enlightened sovereign and legislature which have extended their benevolent care to this distant land."
In 2022, almost two hundred years after Rammohun’s letter, Modi’s party restarted its crusade against English language and was in turn accused of imposing Hindi imperialism by the non-Hindi speaking states. Veteran journalists and former MPs who were once students of La Martinière in Calcutta have started deleting words like “Anglophile” from their Twitter profiles. State officials in one BJP-ruled state were ordered to replace “hello” as a greeting with “Vande Mataram” (I bow to the motherland). Medical colleges in another BJP-ruled state were told to translate textbooks into Hindi, frustrating doctors unable to find translations for words such as “hemorrhoids.”
The truest form of decolonization is one that is far more potent than 1947, or 1971. Hard though it is to predict the future, this is the final curtain to another epoch in a land older than history, the reshaping of an Anglophile nation into something potentially pre-modern. To channel David Reed’s letter from Africa from 1955: “Something new, and probably different, was about to rise in its place.”