All Gandhi's Children

By Guha, Ramachandra | The National Interest, January-February 2011 | Go to article overview

All Gandhi's Children

Guha, Ramachandra, The National Interest

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, there was an outpouring of books reflecting upon the rivalry between totalitarian and democratic political systems. Some were triumphalist, seeing the victory of the West as inevitable, owing to the superiority of its institutions and values. Others were more introspective, recognizing that the two major forms of totalitarianism--fascism and Marxism-Leninism--were invented in the West and had, for large swaths of the twentieth century, a profound appeal for Western intellectuals and opinion makers.

More recently, the market for serious political writing has been invaded by books juxtaposing Western ideals and Islamic fundamentalism, since the latter now appears to have replaced secular totalitarianism as the major threat to the democratic way of life. Once more, the mood varies: where some books are apocalyptic and even hysterical, viewing Islam as in every way irreconcilable to modernity, others are more sober and accommodating, seeking to wean ordinary Muslims away from the grip of fanatics and into the camp of liberal democrats.

These books have all sought to defend Western democracy against its enemies both inside and outside its borders. Where Soviet Russia stood menacingly against the United States and its allies during the Cold War--its work aided by malign or misguided fellow travelers living within democratic, capitalist countries--now, the threat of Islamism is likewise internal as well as external. On the one hand, there are jihadi terrorists waiting to attack Westerners and Western institutions everywhere as part of a global campaign for dominance; on the other hand, there are the growing numbers of Muslim immigrants in Western Europe and North America who tend to live in enclosed ghettos rather than integrate with the host society.

To me, what is remarkable about this substantial (and still-growing) literature is that it largely ignores India. Some books may have a passing reference or two to the country; others do not even grant it that favor. Yet one would think that given its size, diversity and institutional history, the Republic of India would provide a reservoir of political experience with which to refine or rethink theories being articulated in the West. For six decades now, India has lived next to and somehow coped with China, an even larger and more populous nation run as a single-party state. Its other neighbors have included military dictatorships (which Pakistan and Bangladesh have been for much of their history) and absolutist monarchies (as was Nepal until recently). For the same period of time, India, a dominantly Hindu country, has had as equal citizens a substantial Muslim minority. As the historian W. C. Smith wrote in 1957, it was only in modern, postcolonial India that adherents of Islam lived in very large numbers without being the ruling power. Here they shared their citizenship "with an immense number of other people. They constitute the only sizable body of Muslims in the world of whom this is, or ever has been true."

More than fifty years later, many Western nations also have large Muslim minorities of their own. Thus, India provides a test case of the challenges to democracy from its critics on the left and the right; and a test case of the challenge to social harmony posed by a multireligious population which makes its current irrelevance to modern debates on politics and citizenship all the more surprising.

India's struggle from a state under the thumb of an empire to a country of vibrant, independent home rule is a story that unfolded in three broad political and intellectual phases. The Republic of India was forged by argument and counterargument, through a series of debates that set forth the agenda necessary to create this most diverse democratic society. It began in 1857 with a massive popular uprising against British rule, which sought to restore a precolonial order with a Mughal sovereign at its head. …

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