Review: Violent Fraternity by Shruti Kapila
Offering a fresh interpretation of the works of key Indian political figures to widen our understanding of political thought
In Violent Fraternity, Shruti Kapila examines the interaction of political ideas and political leaders in the larger context of India’s anti-colonial struggle and the making of post-colonial India. The theoretical analysis is mainly based on the ideas and views of figures such as Gandhi, Ambedkar, Nehru, Mohammad Iqbal, BG Tilak, Sardar Patel and others. The driving idea seems to be to locate political ideas generated in India in their rightful place within the rich tapestry of global political thought. Clearly, the author has an agenda; and the agenda is to challenge the hegemony of Western political thought, and its claim of uniqueness. Furthermore, the intention is also to make the advocates of Western political thought sensitive to the reception of great political ideas generated by Indian political actors in the context of the works of great Western thinkers such as Hanna Arendt, Carl Smith and Alain Badiou.
Kapila has made a very forceful case on these matters. Scholars from the Subaltern school of thought, however, might interpret the work as elitist as it focusses only on leading voices and not on what Ranajit Guha calls “the small voices of history”. The fact is an objective view of Indian political thought calls for a synthesis of both.
The book’s key goal is to reflect on the meaning and relevance of the idea of violence. This again, is in the context of Indian politics, and also in the light of the works and methods of some key political figures. The idea of violence, the author clarifies, is an essentially political question. The most interesting aspect of this exercise is the treatment of India’s Partition as a civil war. Kapila explains: “In revising ‘Partition violence’ as civil war, the concern with fraternity, fellowship and life with others was transfigured into the domination of the language and pursuit of sovereignty. This transfiguration was founded in the violence of civil war.” While she acknowledges that Gandhi has been venerated as a political thinker and that there is a growing recognition of Ambedkar, she stresses the need to carefully look at the works of other political figures and their writings and ideologies in a similar vein. This will not only deepen our connection with history but also help us appreciate what the great minds of our country were seeking to achieve, not as subordinates of Western minds, but on their own.
Some of these political actors are also the authors of seminal works. Kapila considers 1908 a turning point. Three major works were written around that time: Tilak’s monumental commentary on the Bhagavad Gita, Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj, and Savarkar’s historical account of the Indian Mutiny and the Rebellions of 1857. The chapters that follow engage with these works and present some refreshing insights. The author seems to suggest that the best way to look at these texts is to place them within the global context.
Two chapters, Hindutva’s War and The Battlefield of India (Chapter 3) and A People’s war: 1947, Civil War, and the Rise of Republican Sovereignty (Chapter 7) present crucial insights into her analysis of violence and also on the idea of fraternity. In the introduction, the author refers to a fable of Sigmund Freud taken from the footnotes of his book on mass psychology: A family of hedgehogs massed very close together, one cold winter’s day, hoping to use one another’s warmth to protect themselves against the cold. However, they soon felt one another’s prickles, which made them draw apart. When the need for warmth brought them closer together once again, this second discomfort was repeated. As a result, they bounced back and forth between the two ills until they established a moderate degree of distance from one another in which they could best endure their condition. Freud used the fable to explain the “relationship between the work of preservation and unity, or love, and the drive to kill and destroy, or death drive, and their mutual potency for humanity.” The author deploys this fable’s moral argument rather creatively in the context of the political developments of the early twentieth century.
If you are interested in political ideas and how they are generated or deployed, the narrative in this book will be of tremendous value.
In the end, this is a work of interpretation. Historians will continue to debate whether India’s Partition has solved the problems it was supposed to or has created a new set of problems for both Hindus and Muslims. In the wake of a hegemonic BJP, this question is going to acquire more relevance, particularly in the light of the exacerbation of Hindu-Muslim relations in India today and also owing to the growing animosity between India and Pakistan. While this book offers an interesting interpretation, it is not meant to offer any solution. The author does not focus on the possibility of establishing non-violent fraternity, looking at violence in the context of race relations in America, or drawing parallels between the two to arrive at comparable conclusions. The goal is to demonstrate that the Indian political field does generate political ideas of its own, and that they are no less significant or original than Western political thought.
By offering a fresh interpretation of the works of key political figures, the author has brought about a qualitative transformation in the study of Indian political thought and Indian history. Scholars who believe that Western political thought alone can help us understand key questions on human nature and polity and, more particularly, violence, need to rethink such assumptions. This book challenges such orthodoxy and widens our understanding of political thought and, perhaps, might even bring about a creative synthesis between Indian and Western political thought. In sum, Violent Fraternity by Shruti Kapila is a major contribution to the interface between intellectual history, political theory and South Asian history.
Shaikh Mujibur Rehman teaches at Jamia Millia Islamia Central University, New Delhi. He is the author of forthcoming, Shikwa-e-Hind: The Political Future of Indian Muslims.