Historical considerations of modern South Asia have been marked by a predisposition towards political, material and socio-cultural analyses. Seldom has the remit of ideas as autonomous objects taken centre stage in the historiography of modern South Asia. Shruti Kapila’s new book Violent Fraternity veers off this established trajectory and breaks new ground by looking at ideas as the wellspring of political innovation and fundamental to the republication foundations of the nations of India and Pakistan during what she terms the ‘Indian age’. A work of remarkable scope that defies easy summarisation, the premise of Violent Fraternity is that violence became fraternal in 20th-century India: it was the intimate kin rather than the colonial other that became the object of unprecedented violence. “Violence, fraternity and sovereignty,” Kapila writes, “made up an intimate, deadly and highly consequential triangle of concepts that produced what has been termed here the Indian Age” (p.4)
India’s founding fathers, who as opposed to the conventional figure of the detached scholar-philosopher were also actively straddling echelons of the political world, repeatedly engaged with the question of how to forge life with others in an intimate context rife with hatred and violence. In seeking these answers, they authored a new canon of political thought that defied “fidelity to any given ideology, whether it be liberalism, Marxism or communism”. As Kapila demonstrates, global political thought of the Indian age departed from its western counterpart by reconceptualising the place and potential of violence. In the western canon, the state has been the natural habitus of violence. However, Indian political thinkers like Tilak and Gandhi dissociated violence from the orbit of state, and in a radical rewriting of established political vocabularies, posited violence as an individual capacity, thereby reconceptualising the notion of sovereignty and summoning a subject-centred political horizon.
Dr. Shruti Kapila is an Associate Professor of Indian History and Global Political Thought at the University of Cambridge and presently the Co-Director of the Global Humanities Initiative. Her research centres on modern and contemporary India and on global political thought in the twentieth century. In her recent book Violent Fraternity and in her earlier work on intellectual history of modern India, Dr. Kapila has pushed the boundaries of the field beyond its conventional focus on the West. In our interview, we spoke about modern India’s founding fathers and their intellectual contributions, writing global intellectual histories of the non-west, the future of the field of global intellectual history and Dr. Kapila’s engagements beyond her illustrious academic career.
—Mahia Bashir, London School of Economics and Political Science
Mahia Bashir: Violent Fraternity marks a crucial departure from conventional Indian historiography in that its central focus is on the power of ideas. It seems to follow from a deep-seated conviction in ideas as an animating force in history and is as much a scholarly milestone as it is labour of love. Might you tell us what inspired this project?
Shruti Kapila: Wow that’s a wonderful question and you are very right that it is a labour of love in that I am very animated personally by political ideas myself. At a basic level, I was always surprised that India, broadly conceived up to 1947, is marked by so much political rhetoric and debate—it’s inescapable at all levels of society. Yet, when I read scholarly accounts, especially about India’s politics, they tend to be very reductive and instrumental. They fall into two categories: one, in terms of institutional histories—“How Indians got some representation? Why did they get representation? Was this a form of British loyalism?”—or, two, crass social interpretations—which group is acting in which way, whether caste group or class group?
I thought this is the first country to be decolonised after America and this is a very significant historical change—achievement even. How can it be reduced to a bunch of these materialist analyses? People would have been animated by something. So for me, ideas are causes. It was both, as you say, a form of love, but also, as a historian, I have a conviction in the power of ideas as a cause in history.
MB: One of the key premises of the book is that the architects of Indian political thought or the ‘founding fathers’ as you call them were not just ‘leisured thinkers,’ to invoke C.A. Bayly’s term, but also active political actors. How did this unique vantage position, if I may, inform their political thought and also political practice?
SK: This question links to the first one, because, as I mentioned, my work is informed by a particular problem in Indian history: Indian politics and the way people have looked at it. But there is also another problem: we often assume modern political ideas came from the West, and places in the non-West, particularly colonised places like India, are mere receivers—they somehow derived their political ingenuity or innovation.
If you look at the canon of Western political canon, it is a very policed canon: it starts with a particular figure and ends with a particular figure. They all tend to be men. This poses the second-order problem of: how will you write the political thought of the non-West? Where will you start?
In England, if you look at the story of the modern state in which civil wars are really important, Hobbes becomes this great philosopher of the modern state and that’s the genesis of one side. In France, against the backdrop of French Revolution, Voltaire and Rousseau generated debates about republicanism and democracy, and to say nothing about communism and what comes about from the former Soviet Union. What I am saying is, in the West, the philosopher has occupied a very central role. Treatises were written and historians can subsequently debate what was the impact of Voltaire’s work, for example, on the French Revolution or how did Hobbes inform the modern state.
In South Asia, we have a completely different problem. The work is the opposite. My work is actually doing something to defamiliarise, if I may use that word. It is a bit counter-intuitive to use that word because I take some of the most prominent and powerful political actors in this period and I convert them into thinkers. The only exception here is Muhammad Iqbal because Iqbal is a trained philosopher and is one of the best known literary figures of the twentieth century, but Iqbal is someone who delved in Muslim League politics. The question then is, are we going to look at these figures only in terms of their concrete politics or in terms of pragmatism? To that, I say no. These figures have profoundly torn down and rewritten the fundamental political vocabularies of the twentieth century and of modern politics itself. I give them conceptual and reflective capacity. We see them as busy people immersed in political action, going out there and making arguments. What is the thought behind it? This is an interesting issue for people wanting to study the thought and ideas of the non-West in this “moment of decoloniality”—where do you look? My answer is, and I am not saying everyone should use this answer, look at the prime political actors.
The question then is, are we going to look at these figures only in terms of their concrete politics or in terms of pragmatism? To that, I say no. These figures have profoundly torn down and rewritten the fundamental political vocabularies of the twentieth century and of modern politics itself. I give them conceptual and reflective capacity. We see them as busy people immersed in political action, going out there and making arguments. What is the thought behind it? This is an interesting issue for people wanting to study the thought and ideas of the non-West in this “moment of decoloniality”—where do you look? My answer is, and I am not saying everyone should use this answer, look at the prime political actors.
MB: This book is primarily a history of Indian political thought, but it distills crucial insights from some of the most influential thinkers from Carl Schmitt to Alain Badiou, Sigmund Freud, George Simmel, Ashish Nandy, and Jaques Lacan. What were some of the challenges in writing a book as theoretically rich and layered as Violent Fraternity is?
SK: That’s such a generous question. I don’t mean to be unfair to historians but very few historians would seem to care so deeply about the theoretical edifice of their narratives. One of the issues really about political thought is its close relationship with not just the history of concepts but also philosophical propositions which have informed it.
One of the challenges was to really elevate and give conceptual depth to figures who are all too well received. We think we know who Sardar Patel is or what he stands for. Likewise, for someone like Ambedkar, we assume we know everything about him because he was the first and is the most prominent Dalit figure of the twentieth century. We also think what they said or thought about A, B, or C controversial matters, be it about caste, conversion, Hindu-Muslim relations, or partition. But when you actually read them, I wouldn’t say their work is simply nuanced, but it is informed by so many global debates. Ambedkar, for example, has written in the full awareness of not just Nazism in the 1930s and 40s but also French revolutionary thinking, anthropological thinking, and also liberalism. It does not mean that he will end up with some kind of salad of stuff. He is a totally innovative thinker. So, the challenge was to give the conceptual due and innovation to the figure involved. For example, with Ambedkar, though he is very much about caste and justice, I think of him as a foundational thinker not only of radical democracy but also of republicanism.
The second challenge was how to make it conversant, how to not make it so insular—that this is only about something Indian. As you say, India is instructive for the global with its diversity and scale, which it is, but also in the very nature of its political foundations. It has to produce a republican, modern kind of state formation out of sheer diversity of all kinds. That is not the story of modern Europe. Modern Europe is borne out of quite modular and homogenous ways of being. The challenge was, thus, these two or three different registers: to keep the authenticity of the Indian context and to identify where the interventions lay. That is why the book decided to be, to use the term in the introduction, ‘pointilistic’, rather than trying to write a comprehensive history of these ideas. I must say I truly enjoyed writing this book. It was challenging, but it was a challenge I really relished.
MB: One of the key reflections of book is that in India, violence became an individual capacity rather than being the remit of the state as it was in the West. The individual, be it Tilak’s anti-statist political subject, Gandhi’s self-sacrificing subject or the dislocated Ghadri, thus became the bearer of sovereignty. What ramifications does this have for the conceptions of the post-colonial future espoused by these thinkers?
SK: You have really read the book well. One of the problems that these political actors faced was at the beginning of the twentieth century, when India’s first mass political movement, the Swadeshi or the Home rule movement in 1905-08, failed. It really forced a rethinking on the question of violence and political action.
From a historian’s point of view, one of the issues that animates this book is, in 1857 Indians mount what is at that point the largest anti-imperial movement in world history and it is also the largest scale violence the British see outside of the Crimean War. Indians killed British men, women, and children. It’s pretty widespread; it takes the British two years to suppress it. Ninety years later, the British are singularly spared in the fratricide, in the partition violence. What has changed? What happened?
What has changed, to answer your question, is the rethinking of the very basic political grammar after 1905-08, particularly by Tilak, who is a known leader of the Swadeshi movement and is regarded by men like Lenin as the figurehead of revolution in South Asia. He decouples the question of violence from the state. This is not an anarchist anti-statism. It is a philosophy of a political subject that says life and death are primarily individual capacities, not capacities exclusive to the state to own, deploy, or control. This is very radical. It circumvents the liberal imperial state, which had in effect depoliticised India. Men like Tilak and also Ghadris knew very well that the British had entered in the twentieth century a very peaceful and possibly permanent state of imperial rule. Not only was there education, progress, and co-optation, as it were, of the Indian population to a vast degree, but there was also the means and control of violence complete to the British. This philosophy of anti-statism becomes really very important, and Gandhi would make it into a very non-violent and, I would say, much more consequential force. He lays down the grammar for Indian democracy.
You ask me, what are its ramifications. The ramifications are two-fold. One, the Indian state is unlikely or has failed to date to gain monopoly of violence. Second, anti-statism remains—and as I said it’s not anarchist—a very operable political precept. We have seen it from environmentalism, to say nothing of Maoism or other openly violent movements against the Indian state. But you also have the other side of it, which is that it causes a very strong language of civil disobedience and protest, which is a Gandhian value. You see it most lately in the farmer’s protest. I wrote about it in one of my columns: whether they invoke it or not, it belongs to that genealogy of Gandhian struggle.
Tilak…decouples the question of violence from the state. This is not an anarchist anti-statism. It is a philosophy of a political subject that says life and death are primarily individual capacities, not capacities exclusive to the state to own, deploy, or control. This is very radical. It circumvents the liberal imperial state, which had in effect depoliticised India.
MB: In his magisterial Time and Power, Christopher Clark ruminates on the relationship between power and historicity (i.e., the assumptions about how the past, present, and the future are connected). The role of temporality in relation to political action has also been addressed in your book. How do the different protagonists of this book conceptualise time, and how does it impinge on their political thought?
SK: This is indeed a minor theme of the book. The main theme of the book has really been about violence and intimacy and fraternity, and subsequently how republican foundations are laid for India’s democracy. But you are absolutely right that temporality and history both are part of the story. First in the sense that it is quite inescapable that a large number of India’s political actors/thinkers convey their political ideas through the genre of history. Whether it is Nehru, whether it is Savarkar, whether it is even Ambedkar or even Iqbal who writes a philosophical history of Islam, history is the template to convey political ideas. To use a technical term, it’s a prognostic, a future-oriented project. In that sense, history contains both positive and negative utopias inside it. These political actors/thinkers are not writing histories the way you or I, as professional historians, would write it. They are writing it in that utopian sense, that it provides a future oriented idea of the past.
Whether it is Nehru, whether it is Savarkar, whether it is even Ambedkar or even Iqbal who writes a philosophical history of Islam, history is the template to convey political ideas. To use a technical term, it’s a prognostic, a future-oriented project. In that sense, history contains both positive and negative utopias inside it. These political actors/thinkers are not writing histories the way you or I, as professional historians, would write it. They are writing it in that utopian sense, that it provides a future oriented idea of the past.
Second, you get different ideas of temporality in terms of its civilisational grandeur, for someone like Nehru, or in terms of the epic form, like the Gita. There is a kind of hold of the epic tradition in political thinking or what I call, following Schmitt, political theology. Then, you have someone like Gandhi whose idea of time is the everyday—a very quotidian idea of time. Everyday becomes the framework of political action. So, you have the epic scale thinking in terms of how does a human agent act, which one sees in Tilak’s invocation of the Gita, and Krishna and Arjun. Then you also like someone like Nehru, who operates with the notion of civilisational times, which allows him to give this temporal identity to India—that India has this ancient civilisational temporality. Interestingly, the flipside to this is Vinayak Savarkar, who is looking at two millennia. In a way, he is quite opposed to his mentor Tilak. He says, ‘I don’t know Puranic history or epic stuff, I am only interested in what can be called recorded history’. For him this longue duree is actually very static and it is only interrupted through war. This is altogether a different sort of temporality. So, you have Gandhi’s everyday to Tilak’s epic timescape, and it informs the kind of political projects that they would want to see and the kind of political actor they would want to create. I was thus very careful not to organise the book under any political ideology, because these temporalities allow for competing political ideologies and projects to emerge in India.
MB: In 1951, Isiah Berlin delivered a lecture at Oxford which became the precursor to his remarkable book ‘The Hedgehog and the Fox’ introducing us to the metaphors of the monist hedgehog and the pluralist fox. Based on Berlin’s insights, how might you characterise the architects of India’s political thought?
SK: I think it is hard to characterise and to compartmentalise these people into either box because what they have done is they have prised apart, and it’s not merely a deconstructive exercise, the basic political grammar laid down by, say the French Revolution and even indeed even Marxism, and above all liberalism. These three major ideologies are torn down, absorbed and then from ground zero something new is written in India. Neither hedgehogs nor foxes, I would say they are very single-minded, however, about not being just anti-imperial or just attaining freedom, they also create new norms for politics to take place in India.
MB: You have longstanding interests in psychoanalysis and psychiatry, and your PhD dissertation examined the development of psychiatry in colonial Bombay. I was wondering, what might we expect in terms of future projects?
SK: Yes, I do have a very longstanding interest in psychiatry and primarily in psychoanalysis. Freud is the first non-fiction book I read cover to cover as a teenager. He has been an abiding interest of mine and also helped me think in this book. At one level, I think psychoanalysis, if it is done well and carefully and not unthinkingly deployed, can be very fruitful for understanding politics, especially in our day. We are at an interesting time globally where the given political languages seem to have lost their currency or explanatory value.
I am contending with two projects, both also situated in the 20th century: one quite global, another really about the life of psychoanalysis in politics. If I do not answer which one is coming first, I hope you’ll forgive me. The twentieth century really is the century which has been enabled by psychoanalysis. It is a twentieth-century discipline. I find it fruitful to bring it in conversation with political ideas or political thought.
MB: Beyond the academy, you have also been invested in public engagement with history through your columns and also as the co-director of the Global Humanities Initiative among others. What do you think is the salience of the history of ideas and political thought in contemporary times?
SK: I do think it is going to become more and more important, partly because your generation and even younger are growing up in a world which is so different from my mine and so different my parents’ generation. There is a very swift generational change taking place in terms of politics. Each generation, of course, has to discover its own politics. That is also going on.
This general shift has led to a real demand, whether it is in America or in Britain or more widely in Europe, to really know the non-European world properly and not simply in terms of decolonising the curriculum but really in a more pragmatic way. The rise of China has made it inescapable for everyone in the world to need to know a little bit more about the non-West. So, I think that work will become important and is becoming important. Further, I think more collaborative work is going to take place between academies and universities outside of the Anglo-American world, with say the academy in South Asia and Africa and the Middle East. It is going to be a slightly different arrangement I feel, or at least some of us hope it will be.