The Post-colonial State – Sudipta Kaviraj

Posted: 19/01/2009 by Aditya Nigam in Empire, History, Modernity, Nation-state, Postcolonial, State, Sudipta Kaviraj, Theory
Tags: , , ,

The Post-colonial State: The special case of India

By Sudipta Kaviraj

No story of the European state can be complete if it does not take into account its successes/effects outside Europe. Francois Guizot’s classic history of the European state requires a supplement:[1] he tells half the story. His magisterial account presents the picture of the state inside Europe’s own history. But the story of the European state has an equally significant counterpart, a history that happens outside. Outside Europe the modern state succeeded in two senses – first as an instrument, and second, as an idea.

First, the organisation of European societies produced by the modern state was an essential factor in Europe’s ability to bring the rest of the world under its colonial control. Here the state functioned as an immense and unprecedented enhancement of the European societies’ capacity for collective action – in raising military resources, producing the economic resources which under-girded its military success, focusing on clearly defined stratagems of control and conquest. In fact, when other people began to reflect on the reasons for this astonishing success of Europe, they often settled on this as its intangible but indispensable instrument. By extending Tocqueville insights, it can be argued that traditional, pre-modern forms of political authority were utterly inadequate in dealing with the power of the modern European state. It could be restrained and eventually effectively opposed only through a movement that organised the power of entire populations against the colonial state in the form of national mobilisations. But it succeeded a second time as an idea. Successful nationalist movements, after de-colonisation, enthusiastically accepted the idea of a modern society centred upon the state’s sovereignty – a principle of social construction entirely different from traditional ones. Except for a few odd individuals like Gandhi and Tagore, nationalists did not object to the presence of the modern state, only to its being in the European’s control. . With independence, they did not wish, except in a few cases like Gandhi, to ‘abolish’ the state, but to use it for their own purposes. Eventually, in the gigantic transformations of third world societies which have followed on de-colonisation, for good or for worse, were driven through by using the power of this modern instrumentality of the state. In the absence of other forces – like the bourgeoisie or the proletariat- that played such an important role in European social transformations – it was the state which almost entirely arrogated to itself the power of proposing, directing and effecting large scale change. There might be great debates about judging what the state has done; but there is no doubt that it has been the most powerful collective agency. That is why the state is central to the story of non-Western modernity, and colonialism is central to the story of the state.

This paper is not about the post-colonial state in general; only the historically specific form it assumed in India. It is thus necessary to spell out what can be generalised from the Indian case, and what cannot. First, although India is a single country, its numerical significance is obvious: what happens to its people political is the collective experience of about one-third of the non-Western world. Second, as there is little dispute today about the desirability of democratic forms of government, the Indian case is particularly important. It is one of the most successful cases of democracy outside of Europe. But the ‘success’ of democracy is an ambiguous idea, capable of a minimal and expansive interpretation. The narrow, and minimalist reading of the success of democracy is simply the continuance of a competitive electoral system of government: if this system of government continues, it is generally acclaimed as a ‘success’ of democracy. But, again in Tocqueville, there is a suggestion about a different reading of democracy’s success – which is not just a continuation of a system of government, but the capacity of this government to produce egalitarian effects in society. In India, democracy has been a great success in both these senses. First, in a highly diverse society, divided by religion, castes, classes, languages the democratic system has functioned without interruption and without popular apathy for nearly six decades now. Second, and more significantly, this institutional continuation of democracy has produced in this period a fundamental social transformation which is in some respects startlingly different from the European social processes. The story of Indian democracy is of more general interest for a third reason as well. If democratic institutions spread and achieve success in the non-European world, the institutions would produce social results depending on the forms of sociability available in each historical context. In such cases of future successful democracy, it is likely that non-European societies might follow a trajectory closer to India’s than to modern Europe’s.

This paper offers a brief sketch of the post-colonial state in India. It interprets post-colonial to mean not the trivial fact that this state has emerged after the colonial regime departed. It takes it in the stronger sense to mean that some of its characteristic features could not have arisen without the particular colonial history that went before. I also believe, unlike some opther political scientists, that political change in modern India cannot be studied fruitfully – except in the long term historical perspective. To understand the unfolding story of politics and the state today, it is thus essential to start with the coming of colonial authority.

Modernity in India, and perhaps also in other European colonies, was largely a political affair. All commentators on European modernity point out the significant, if not originary role that transformations of the production and economic processes played in the making of European modernity. I wish to suggest that in India by contrast the causal powers of economic changes were far more limited. The type of capitalist development that eventually took place in colonial India was determined to a large extent by political imperatives of state control. Modernity came to India by the political route, indeed through the introduction of a new activity called ‘politics’. Indeed, the activity was so new that in many vernaculars it is still colloquially referred to by the English-derived word ‘politics’, rather than by an orthogenetic term. This new activity of ‘politics’ assumed primarily three different forms in successive stages of modern Indian history. Initially, it entered with the establishment of new institutions of colonial rule, eventually crystallizing into a colonial state/regime – which, sociologically, politics was done by British rulers and Indian elites who had transactions with them. In the second phase, its scope was extended through the popular nationalist movement from the 1920s when Indian more generally took part in this as a large, encompassing transformative activity. Although most Indian were affected by this form of politics, their participation and capacity to behave as actors depended on class and education. Nationalist politics was more the politics of the wider educated elites, much less of the ordinary Indian peasant. Curiously, even after indepdnendence, this structure of politics continued unchanged. Since the seventies, in another serious transformation, the business of politics became much more expansive, and lower caste and lower class politicians brought in the concerted pressures of their ordinary constitutents into the life of the state.

What were the central processes in this transformation? Why has politics of a discursive, representative, democratic character succeeded in India?

The basic argument of this paper is controversial, but fairly simple. There can be no doubt that in the last two hundred years Indian society has undergone a most fundamental transformation. The central point of this change, in my view, is the transformation of a society in which ‘imperative co-ordination’, to use Weber’s inelegant but useful phrase, was achieved through a religious system based on caste, with comparatively little role of the state, has been turned over to an order which is controlled by the state – its institutions, its laws, its resources, its functionaries and its place in the ordinary people’s imagination. In pre-modern times, control over the state was relatively marginal to the narratives of significant social change. The most significant upheavals in early Indian history were not dynastic or regime changes, but the challenges to the religious organisation of society through reform movements of Buddhism and Jainism against ritualistic Brahminism in ancient India, rise of the bhakti cults against Hindu orthodoxy in the middle ages. By contrast, from the middle of the nineteenth century the state’s role has been absolutely central in the passage of social change. The colonial state ended in 1947, but the new way of organising social life through ‘politics’, making the society state-centred, has not merely continued, but expanded its jurisdiction over all aspects of social life. The European state thus still dominates modern Indian life in those two senses. The institutional apparatuses introduced into Indian society by British colonial power have not been dismantled, but massively extended. Secondly, the idea of that to be modern is to live through the state, to organise society through this central institution of power, has had a great vindication –ironically through the demise of colonial power itself.

Following this main idea, I shall present my argument in three parts: first part will offer a brief outline of the arrangement of social power in traditional (pre-colonial) India[2], the second will describe the changes brought in by colonialism and the Indians’ transaction with its initiatives, and the final section will analyse what has happened to this state after independence – by its becoming a ‘nation-state’, and the manner in which principles of democracy have been interpreted by social forces in India.


Colonial power came to an Indian society which already had an intricate and long-standing political organisation. At the time when colonial power began to exert serious influence, power in Indian society was structured in a peculiar form. Much of Northern and central India had been under an Islamic empire for nearly six centuries.[3] Yet the presence of Islam in India was special. In most other societies, a conquering Islamic power had converted and transformed indigenous social practices and religious doctrine. In India the irresistible military power of Islamic dynasties learnt to coexist with the immovable social structure of the Hindu caste system. Indian society, thus, had a dual structure of power, composed on strange crossing of Hindu and Islamic principles. From very early times, ‘Hindu’ society[4] (an anachronistic description of a collection of different forms united by a single sociological order[5]) had a fairly explicit and intricate arrangement of social power structured in terms of castes. Caste is a peculiar structure of social power which tends to circumscribe the jurisdiction of political authority. To understand the changes that the modern state brought into Indian society, it is necessary to picture the functioning of caste society. Caste, as is generally known, has two forms – the formal, ritualistic structure of the four varnas, and the effective sociological structure of much more numerous jatis. Sociological analysts usually give less importance to the formal varna structure, but it is significant for one central reason. It shows that at the centre of the caste order is a scheme of an asymmetric hierarchy, which separated the goods that ordinary people could seek and value in mundane life, and segregated group according to these The underlying theory behind the caste order implied that the primary values/goods of human life were ritual status/ religious prestige, political power to rule over society, and the economic power to control wealth.[6] The central logic of the varna version of the caste system was to separate the social groups which exercised monopolistic control over each of these human goods. The social order of castes separated the search for social prestige and cognitive powers, political and military supremacy and commercial wealth. This also meant that, unlike aristocratic societies of pre-modern Europe, political pre-eminence, economic wealth and cultural prestige did not coincide in a single social elite. Occupational separation by birth meant that social groups lived in three types of relations to each other: segmentation, interdependence and hierarchy. Occupationally divided social groups could not seek the same goods; and therefore, it reduced, if not entirely excluded, competition for wealth and power.[7] Secondly, the caste order was based on a generally recognised social constitution, an authoritative allocation of social roles, rewards and therefore life-trajectories which governed conduct in minute details. Significantly, this authoritative allocation did not originate from political authority. Political rulers could not alter the rules of this social constitution, but were expected to uphold and administer its ‘immutable’ norms, and crucially, were themselves subject to its segmentally relevant rules.[8] Consequently, in this social world, the power of political rulers was limited to ‘executive’ functions: ie, to protect the social constitution, punish infringements, and return it to its order of normalcy. In this sense, the political rulers did not have the ‘legislative’ authority to reconstitute this order, except in marginal ways. The idea of modern sovereignty therefore did not apply to the power of the political authority in this society.[9]

However, an obvious objection at this stage of the argument can be: is this not an excessively Hindu view of political power? Since large parts of Indian society were securely governed by Islamic rulers since the eleventh century, does this model apply to those areas as well? One of the most interesting historical questions about India’s political past is about the precise relation Islamic imperial power had with the predominantly Hindu society over which it exercised control. Although Islamic religious doctrine was fundamentally different from Hinduism (e.g., about idolatry, monotheism, egalitarianism etc.), in sociological terms (i.e., the relation between political authority and the social constitution) Islam in India observed very similar principles, and tacitly accepted the restrictions caste society placed on the ‘legislative’ functions of rulers.[10] Thus, the coming of Islam was highly significant in other ways, but not in terms of the fundamental structure of the relation between political power and social order. It required a state of a very different sort, animated by very different intellectual principles of self-organisation and endowed with new types of cognitive-statistical appliances, to alter this stable social constitution and replace it with a new one. The modern state is, by definition, the state which, because of its self-interpretation in terms of the principle of sovereignty, considered this invasive transformation of society possible.


Although the colonial system of states meant a subordination of other societies to some metropolitan European powers, the actual transactions of colonialism were exteremely diverse. First, the European states themselves came from vastly different cultural and institutional contexts, and the differences between European states reflected themselves in the system of political power they brought into the colonial territories. Secondly, much depended on exactly when a territory was brought under European control. Third, European powers followed entirely different projects in different colonies, and though experience of colonial rule in one part of the world informed decisions about another, British rule in Africa, for instance, was very different from what it was in India. Finally, the exact nature of colonial rule depended not merely on what the colonial power was ideologically intent on doing, or instrumentally capable of achieving, but also the manner in which the colonized society deployed its own cultural and political resources. Focusing on India therefore gives us a single story out of many diverse ones of European colonial rule, and because of the strange intimacy that developed between India and Britain, it might portray European colonial domination in general in a misleadingly benevolent light. Not all groups in colonized countries responded to the arrival of European power and culture with the initial enthusiasm of the modern Indian elites. The sharing of at least abstract common political principles between the colonial rulers and the nationalist elite to produce an effective framework of political conflict was also rather unusual, as much as the negotiated nature of the ultimate withdrawal of British power.

The state established by British colonialism was precisely an historical force of this kind. Dominion established by British power, even though its immediate instrument was a commercial company, occurred in an intellectual context which presupposed sovereignty as a definitional quality of state-power. Thus, when the British eventually turned India into a crown colony, the colonial state assumed the rights of state sovereignty as these were understood in European discourses of the nineteenth century. Interestingly, however, British colonial power did not enter India in the shape of state authority: nor was the initial conflict about establishment of control in the form of a struggle between two states – the declining Mughal empire and the British crown. It is the peculiar constitution of society, and the relative externality of the state to the orders of caste practice which allowed this to happen. By the first half of the nineteenth century, British organisations already controlled much of commercial activity, military power, quasi-political administrative apparatuses and had a substantial influence on cultural life in several parts of India. When they finally decided to end the fiction of Mughal rule after the rebellion of 1857, Mughal authority was already purely nominal. But this first, and rather peculiar stage in the establishment of British power, stretching over a century, is critical for an understanding of the special dynamics of British colonialism in India. In this stage, we must try to sketch out the contours of advancing colonial power, rather than describe the structure of the ‘colonial state’. British Power, established initially through control over channels and instruments of commerce and revenue-collection, and at the second step, through the introduction of modern cultural apparatuses, slowly turned into a state of the modern kind – though, its actual institutions were quite different from European models of the nineteenth century.[11]The most significant implication of this is that Indian opinion was always internally deeply divided about colonial rule. Older aristocracies which lost their power to the British and their supporters were understandably hostile to the gradual entrenchment of British power. Similarly, traditional holders of social authority and prestige, like Brahmin conservatives, often looked at the new influences with hostility. Recent historial research has strongly underlined the fact that the British could establish their control over a large and diverse territory like India, partly because they went along with historical trends that had already started in India in the eighteenth century, and for this reason, they also drew substantial support from indigenous groups. Important sections of Indian society, like powerful commercial interests, aspirant political groups, and relatively modern elites produce by new educational institutions strongly supported the establishment of British power. Eventually, this allowed British rule in India to become an interesting arrangement of power which was administered by large groups of Indian elites who collaborated with British authority and ran the colony under British supervision.[12]

Viewed in the historical long term, the colonial state altered Indian society in two different ways. Establishment of a new kind of state, with formal legal claims to sovereignty, was itself a major transformative project, which against the logic of the limitation of political authority in the segmentary caste civilisation. It established and familiarized the idea that the apparatuses of the state, especially its legislative organs, in British or Indian hands, could, in principle, judge social institutions critically, and formally alter them. Some of the most fateful and long lasting effects were not introduced through political policies narrowly defined, but through more indirect cultural changes it induced through its administrative habits.[13] These administrative procedures, like the great statistical enterprises of the colonial regimes, though not political in themselves, nonetheless caused fundamental changes in social identities and their preparation for a new kind of politics. Surprisingly, the colonial administration changed identities by implanting cognitive practices which objectified communities, changing them from an earlier fuzzy or underspecified form to a modern enumerated one. Processes of enumeration of the social world, like mapping and census, irreversibly altered social ontology by giving groups a new kind of agentive political identity.[14] This was not political agency in itself, but a precondition for the development of a political universe in which political agency could be imparted to large impersonal groups – like castes or religious communities.

However, the colonial state was subject to contradictory impulses. It certainly set in motion large information-gathering processes under the rationalist belief that in order to rule that large, complex society the state and its officials had to know it well. But this impulse of cognitive appropriation was not part of a state-directed agenda of wholesale social reform. The colonial state was surprisingly cautious about unnecessary interference in everyday social life. One strand of colonial administrative thinking advocated a state of deliberate inactivity, which did not meddle in social affairs which colonial rulers did not understand fully, and which might unwittingly create disaffection. Even in case of a barbaric practice like sati – the burning of widows on the funeral pyre of their deceased husbands – the initial response of the colonial regime was fairly cautious. Only the righteous indignation of the native reformers eventually pushed it into legislation banning the practice.[15] Apart from cultural scruples, the colonial state also mistrusted over-expansion of its activities on purely prudential grounds. British policy oscillated between a reforming impulse, which wanted to restructure Indian society, on rational lines, and an impulse of restraint, which wanted to leave social affairs of Indians alone.[16] The self-limitation of the colonial state, justified at various times by arguments of financial prudence or cultural relativism, allowed a wide space for the development of a distinctive elite associational politics in 19th century India. This ability to form associations, exercise group solidarity, pursue their economic interests, transact business with the colonial state, gave the modern Indian elite the confidence to develop larger projects of self-government, and led to the growth of Indian nationalism.

Ironically, the specific ideological culture in which the British colonial state operated played a part in the eventual growth of nationalist arguments in India. Interestingly, the time of the greatest expansion and power of British colonialism in India was coincided with the time when principles of modern liberalism were being established in British political arguments. The Indian empire thus witnessed all the internal contradictions of an imperialism which also sought to subscribe to liberal doctrine[17] In the nineteenth century, liberal political theorists were arguing passionately against the substantial remnants of despotic power from the early stages of sovereignty, and advocating dramatic expansion of citizens’ freedom. Such principles sat uneasily with the demands of the expanding empire, particularly after the mid-nineteenth century. Educated Indians, now well versed in the theoretical arguments of liberalism and the practical extensions of suffrage, were quick to convert to liberal doctrine and demand their instant extension to India. Liberal imperialism produced a peculiar dynamics through the exchanges between Indian and the British authors on the question of political morals. Indian intellectuals quickly realized that the best form of injustice was the injustice administered by liberals. The philosophical anthropology and procedural universalism of liberal doctrines required that political principles of liberty and equality should be declared in a universal form. Liberalism enunciated its principles in an abstract, impersonal and universal form; but often avoided realising them in practice. This was done in one of two usual ways – both unwittingly giving opportunity to nationalists for developing compelling counter-arguments. In some contexts, the universal principles were simply ignored in practice, which made it easy for nationalists to accuse the British of dishonesty, and embarrass the administration by comparing the principles with actual practice. In others contexts, theorists like John Stuart Mill tried to produce a more serious intellectual argument using a stage theory of history, of the kind common to Scottish enlightenment thinkers.[18] His writings counselled an indefinite postponement of enjoyment of liberal rights by Indians. On the grounds that although liberal institutions were, in the abstract, best for all mankind, they were not suitable for most of human societies until they had attained a required stage of civilisation.[19]This ingenious argument saved the abstract universality of liberal ideals, but justified imperial rule for an indefinite future. Yet this particular ideological configuration contributed to an extent to the surprisingly amicable nature of the colonial conflict in India. The intellectual form of the arguments acknowledged that denial of self-government was not right in principle, and could not be continued indefinitely. It also created a subtle sense of defensiveness, if not guilt, in the ideological defence of the empire. Indian nationalists appealed to the same principles in their critique of British imperial government in India. This sharing of principles at a very abstract level contributed to the slow but steady sequence of constitutional shifts, which eventually led to the transfer of power to Indians in 1947.

[The modern Indian elite did not show any signs of support to the abortive uprising against British rule in 1857, because of their extreme distaste for traditional forms of despotic government. The new elite wished to emulate European precedents by setting up a nation-state with representative, if not fully democratic institutions. To the nationalists themselves the existence of an Indian nation, who would collectively oppose British authority, had the certainty of an axiom. But in fact, the process of the construction of an Indian national identity was far more complex. The ‘idea’ of India in the name of which the national movement spoke with such passion in the twentieth century was an invention, not a ‘discovery’ as Jawaharlal Nehru had claimed. For a truly historical understanding of the process by which groups of disparate people, separated by boundaries of religion, caste, language, culture came to imagine themselves to be ‘Indians’ it is necessary to disaggregate the conventional teleological narratives of Indian nationalism in two ways. The parts of India where the British established their domination securely were subjected to the social logic of modernity, and their inhabitants, at least the elites, immediately experienced an unprecedented access of new types of wealth and institutional power. In the short term, this generated an intense sense of regional pride, particularly pronounced among the Bengalis, the first beneficiaries of a sub-imperial eminence from their association with British power. However, this did not contribute to any common sense of Indianness or a sense of Indian national pride: rather, it made the Bengalis and similarly placed elites elsewhere acutely conscious of their preciousness, and accentuated their sense of distance from other, less modern, groups. The coming of print introduced cultural processes which produced standardized vernacular languages, and with the growth of vernaculars followed an intensification regional patriotism. It was common in the early nineteenth century to find poetry celebrating this historical good fortune, and giving thanks for this happy turn of events to Britannia rather than to Mother India. From the middle of the century however this happy mood of cultural acquiescence to colonial modernity starts changing into attitudes more critical of British power. Unless these regional patriotisms were transcended, the emergence of an ‘Indian’ nationalism was impossible. If these trends of cultural modernization had continued, the trajectory of Indian history would have been quite different. But from the mid-nineteenth century this predominant cultural pattern of regional patriotism and implicit mutual separation changed in a new direction, representing a second stage in the formation of modern perceptions of identity. It is best to characterize this culture as anti-colonialist: the major argument turned into a different kind of celebration of modern subjectivity. The dignity of the modern subject was seen in enjoying political rights of citizenship, made impossible by the legal frame of British colonial rule. In parallel, the dignity of the collective subject of a people was similarly seen to lie in its desire its for its own state and its realisation. Within fifty years, the general climate of opinion and political imagination changed unrecognisably: from a celebration of the god fortune which brought Indians into contact with the modernizing British empire, leading intellectuals switched to a very different celebration of the principles of self-rule. This form of consciousness still suffered from a major indecision: its negative point – opposition to British rule- was clear, but its more positive complement – who were the people who would thus oppose the British – was much less so. The Bengali writer, Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay – whose novels played a significant role in this transformation of political imagination, and in the transcendence of a regional by an Indian patriotism – was still unclear about the ‘people’ on whose behalf he was developing his visions of freedom. At various points of his development, this crucial ‘we’ seemed to be the Bengalis, or the Hindus, or all Indians. It was only by the end of the nineteenth century that the final step towards the creation of a nationalist consciousness was taken. By the turn of the century, in some ways, the intellectual horizon of Indian thinking had changed fundamentally and irreversibly. The central question of political life was, by now, opposition to British rule and eventually attainment of freedom; and secondly, the question of identity seemed settled in favour of an Indian nationalism.

Not surprisingly, even in this relatively ‘mature’ stage, after the turn of the century, Indian nationalism exhibited several distinct strands. Four distinct lines of thought could be easily distinguished– exclusivist conceptions of nationalism which believed that the nation-state could only be based on religious communities of (i)Hindus and (ii)Muslims communities, (iii)pluralistic conceptions of Indianness based on traditional ideals of religious tolerance advocated primarily by Gandhi, [21] and (iv)modernist nationalism based on ideas of liberal citizenship and distributive justice.[22] All these strands wanted to seize control of the state from British rulers, but to go on to do different things with it.

There was also a significant conflict between two forms of the nationalist imagination of an ‘Indian’ identity on which future state would be based – which could be designated as homogenizing and pluralist. Curiously, some of the traditionalists among the Congress leadership drew upon European precedents of nation-building to claim that the new nation-state could not be viable without a homogenizing vision of Indianness around a single language (Hindi), single religion (Hinduism) and a single culture.[23] All the pedagogic powers of the new state should be directed, in their view, towards producing a nationalist sentiment of this kind. This view was successfully contested by a radically different vision of Indianness which saw diversity as a resource, rather than a weakness; and which argued in favour of a federal constitution that accommodated the traditional conventions of regional autonomy and division of political authority. Being an Indian was viewed as a second-order identity that did not cancel out regional cultural identities of Bengalis or Tamils, but subsumed them within a structure that encouraged enriching exchanges between them. The constitution, meticulously discussed over two years, eventually accepted the second view of Indian identity and translated that into the animating principle of the legal structure.[24]

The new nation-state started with a pluralist conception of the democratic state; but in any historical view of Indian politics, it is essential, against the nationalist celebration of this beginning, to remember the brief, but intense period of several months during India’s partition when state authority and civilised behaviour utterly collapsed, when the British authorities, who had ruled India with such confidence for more than a century, and their aspiring Indian successors lost control over the escalating orgies of violence. The partition process released dark forces of hatred and communal violence with a loss of several million lives. At an early stage, Indians were reminded that institutions of political modernity and the undisturbed enjoyment of order and civility were fragile and reversible achievements. It was a stark and terrible lesson in the consequences of state failure. [25]


The defining structures of the Indian nation-state after 1947 were produced by a combination of structural pressures and conjunctural openings. The state after independence had a double, and in some ways, contradictory inheritance. It was a successor to both the British colonial state and the movement of Indian nationalism. To combine the two sets of attributes – ideals, institutions, aspirations - that emerged from these contradictory legacies was not an easy task. Broadly, the legal institutions and coercive apparatuses of the state remained similar to the last stage of colonial rule – to the disappointment of those who expected a radical overhaul of the state. During its nationalist agitations, Congress had identified education, the police and the bureaucracy as the three pillars of colonial domination, and made repeated promises to introduce radical changes in their functioning. In the event, when they assumed power, especially after the panic of the partition, they left these three apparatuses of persuasion and control entirely unreformed. On one point, however, a major transformation took place – though its full effects became apparent only after a certain historical interval. From the early decades of the twentieth century, British authorities had cautiously introduced partial representative institutions.[26] Despite apprehensions about widespread illiteracy, the new state introduced universal franchise in a single dramatic move of inclusion.[27] The ideological discourse of nationalism had also created vast popular expectations from the state once it was taken over by the Congress, in sharp contrast with the rather limited objectives of the colonial state. Apart from the conventional responsibilities of the state in law and order, it was expected to play an enormous role in the ill-defined and constantly expanding field of ‘development’. Thus the state that took over from colonial rule partly continued its legacy, partly undertook hugely expansive new responsibilities.

The entire story of the state for the half-century after independence can be seen in terms of two apparently contradictory trends. In an apparent paradox, the history of Indian politics saw the simultaneous strengthening of two tendencies that can be schematically regarded as the logic of bureaucracy and the logic of democracy. The antecedents of both these trends could be found in the history of colonial rule : the gradual domination of the society by modern state institutions which brought significant social practices under its surveillance, supervision and control, and the equally slow and cautious introduction of practices of representation – so that this increasing control could be seen not as imposition of external rules of discipline, but impositions of rules and demands generated by the society itself. Both trends became more extensive and powerful after independence.

Under British rule, extension of bureaucracy was mainly sanctioned by a rhetoric of state efficiency; under nationalist leadership, this was substituted by the rhetoric of ‘development’. For entirely fortuitous reasons, at the time of the state’s foundation, Nehru came to enjoy an extraordinary degree of freedom in shaping its basic policies. The death of Gandhi and Patel, who had very different ideological inclinations, left the conservative sections of the Congress without effective leadership. Unopposed temporarily, Nehru imparted to this state a developmentalist and mildly redistributive ideology. According to this ideological vision, the state was seen as the primary instrument of development with extensive responsibilities in the direct management of production and redistribution. In part, this was because the massive industrialisation programme that India undertook after independence could not be financed or managed by private capital; in part, because private capitalist development was expected to increase income inequality, while state-managed development could simultaneously contribute to redistribution of wealth. Eventually, this led to a massive expansion of the bureaucracy without a corresponding change in its culture. Rapid over-extension of the bureaucracy intensified its inefficiency, reduced observance of procedures and produced large zones of corruption and malpractice. Eventually this led to a paradox of the over-extended state – it was expected to supervise all aspects of activity – from the management of the army, to running the administration to the provision of schools and hospitals. Its vast reach and responsibility resulted in a reduction of the reliability of delivery of social services. The state in contemporary India became ubiquitous, but also universally unreliable. But over the hald century of its existence, subtle changes took place in the developmental state itself; its structures and practices changed imperceptibly. Initially, during the Nehru years, the state was seen primarily as an engine of production, specially active in the production of essential industrial capacities and infrastructure. But the ideological justification of this constantly expanding state machinery was in terms of arguments of distributive justice. If the state managed heavy industries, the argument went, existing inequalities of income would not increase; and it would also act against the concentration of resources in a few private hands – classical Marxist arguments for socialist politics. In the first two decades after independence, state institutions with the responsibility of establishing and running heavy industries performed with reasonable efficiency. They helped setup and run a considerable heavy industrial base driven by the current economic theory of self-reliance and import-substituting industrialization. By the early seventies, a certain change in the character of state enterprises was discernible, and in their nexus with political authority. ‘The state sector’, as it came to be called in India, came to control vast economic resources – through its gigantic, interconnected networks of financing, employment, contracts associated with both productive and welfare activities of the state enterprises. Nehru’s government accorded to these enterprises a relative decisional and managerial autonomy to ensure technical correctness of decision-making. With the vast increase of their resources, political leaders and ministries began from the eighties to impose more direct control on their operations. By the mid-seventies, these enterprises and the state machinery in general had changed their character significantly. The government leadership under Indira Gandhi slowly abandoned its aspiration of serious direction to the economy through directive state planning. Instead of being seen as segments of an internally coherent policy of development planning, these enterprises sank into a logic of uncontrolled bureaucratisation, sinking deeper into inefficiency. Anxiety over inefficiency made managements more dependent on support of political leaders for survival. The price they extracted for this support was indirect access to the use of these resources for political ends. The huge economic bureaucracy of the developmental state increasingly had nothing to do with actual redistributive objectives, but became utterly dependent on a disingenuous use of that rhetoric. The sizeable economic surplus under the state’s control came to be used for illegitimate purposes by elected politicians who developed a vested interest in defending this large, over-stretched, inefficient state.

The other undeniable historical process in political life was the logic of democracy: but the lines of its movement were at times surprisingly different from European democracy in the 19th century. First, unlike the gradual, incremental development of the suffrge in most European states, democracy was introduced to India is a single grandly dramatic gesture of political inclusion. Although the colonial administration had slowly introduced representative institutions from early twentieth century, the electorate at the last election under colonial administration was about 14 % of the adult population. The constitution adopted in 1950 installed universal adult suffrage in a country that was 70% illiterate. The new entrants into the arena of politics thus instantly outnumbered social elites already entrenched in representative institutions. This was likely to result in a conflict over representation, entrant groups contesting the claim of elite politicians to ‘represent’ the entire nation – an eventually that did happen, but after a lapse of time. The probable reason for this was that traditional habits of deference towards socially dominant groups, upper caste and classes, decline slowly, over a period of time. For about two decades, although the poor and the disprivileged in Indian society had the formal right to vote, they actually left the arena of institutional politics entirely in the hands of the social elites. Paradoxically, the institutions of democratic government seemed to function with impeccably formal propriety precisely because levels of participation were low, and popular expectation from democratic government were limited. The usual problems of electoral politics – resources allocation on the basis of electoral pressure, which makes long-term decisions particularly difficult – did not affect Indian democratic government in the Nehru years. It was clear by the seventies that ordinary voters, especially the urban poor and the lower castes in the countryside, had learnt strategic use of the vote. They made greater demands on the political system, and politicians from these groups began to emerge first into state governments, and later into national government. This somewhat delayed but decisive entry of the common people into the life of the state utterly transformed its character. Politics came to be in the vernacular in two senses. Literally, much of political discourse began to be in the vernacular, in contrast to the first decades when English was the mandatory language of politics; but, more significantly, politics came to be shaped after the seventies by a kind of conceptual vernacular as well, used by politicians who did not have the conventional education through the medium of English and whose political imagination was not determined by their knowledge of European historical precedents. The political leaders who had devised the democratic constitution had expected democracy to have wider social effects; but their expectations followed the familiar trajectories of European democracy. Introduction of modern democracy in Europe made the stark inequalities of class of nineteenth century capitalist society increasingly unsustainable. Radical leaders like Nehru had therefore expected that as ordinary Indians acquired democratic consciousness, they would case to identify themselves through categories of the traditional caste hierarchy, and demand great economic equality. Democratic institutions will thus lead, in the long term, to modernist movements for reduction of poverty. But what happened through half a century of democratic politics defied and confounded such expectations. Democracy certainly led to vast revolutionary effects in the Indian context as well – but that historic change resembled Tocqueville’s revolution more than Marx’s. Democratic politics produced a fundamental transformation of Indian society – but not in terms of class. Unlike Europe the logic of democracy has not led to greater equality of income, but a real redistribution of dignity. The deep European influence on India’s intellectuals made them subtly predisposed, irrespective of ideology, to underestimate the social presence of caste. Both liberals and socialists, who dominated the discourse of India’s political world in the early decades, expected that traditional forms of belonging and behaviour would disappear under the twin pressure of the economic logic of industrialization and the political logic of electoral democracy. Historically the unfolding of modernity has proved enormously more complex. The most comprehensive defining principle of India’s social life before the coming of modern influences was undeniably the caste order. That order determined the individuals’ life chances, and the principles that governed the relation between the collective bodies of castes in the social system. The long term effects of economic modernity of this social structure has been more straightforward. In all parts of India, despite regional variations, the expansion of economic modernity – urbanization and industrial development – has led to a decline of caste observances in daily life. Hindu rules forbidding intermixture at marriage, social intercourse, commensality have lost their former ability to constrain individual behaviour and private lives. Ironically, however, in the public arenas of political life, caste seems to have become much more powerful, defying modernist expectations. Caste affiliations have not broken down or faded in political life under the impact of electoral politics; the order of caste life has simply adapted to the operation of parliamentary democracy to produce large caste-based electoral coalitions. Paradoxically, the historical demand of this form of caste politics is not the end of caste-identity, but a democratic recognition of equality among caste groups – a state of affairs unthinkable according to the traditional grammar of caste behaviour. An anomalous accompaniment of this development is the peculiar translation of the language of rights in contemporary Indian culture. In Indian society, despite pressures of modernity, the process of sociological individuation has not gone very far. Consequently, although the universe of discourse is ringing with unceasing demands for recognition of rights, rarely have these advocated the rights of atomistic liberal individuals. In a world made of very different principles of sociability – of castes, regions, communities – the strident new language of rights has sought to establish primarily rights of contending groups. Most major radical demands in Indian politics are not for group equality rather than income inequality between individuals – leading to a strange fading from the discourse of one of the poorest societies of the world of a politics centred on poverty.

It is not surprising that elite groups, who have most to lose from the assertion of demands of lower castes, have given large-scale support to a counter-move through a new kind of politics of religious communities. Hindu nationalist parties were relatively unsuccessful electorally in the period of Congress hegemony. But in a climate of intensifying lower-caste assertion, their insinuation against the Congress policies of muddled secularism – that it discriminated against the Hindus in return for secure voting support from the Muslim minority – attracted substantial upper-caste backing. Assisted by an inflammatory rhetoric, centred on an old mosque allegedly built on a destroyed temple in the sixteenth century, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party made dramatic electoral gains in the elections in the 1990s to emerge finally as the largest single party in parliament, and ruling India for the last five years with the support of volatile coalitions. But what is remarkable in this contest is that the BJP has sought to fashion a response to the politics of lower caste groups by appeal to the emotions of another form of community. Communitarianism in Indian politics takes complex and at times extremely unpleasant forms.

But democracy is a complex ideal which appeals equally to two types of political principles : it claims its legitimacy on one side, from the pursuit of conflict through established, transparent procedures, which ensure that no group loses out finally and irreversibly, so that they continue to follow their objectives through the recursive electoral contests. On the other hand, it appeals to the principles of participation in both its deliberative and expressive forms. The politics of community assertion in India has created a potential conflict between these two principles of participation and proceduralism. Political parties representing large communities with a strong sense of grievance have often regarded procedures of liberal government as unjustified obstacles in their pursuit of justice. Procedures are sometimes threatened by the politics of intense participation.

Another peculiarity of the story of modern politics in India is the simultaneous power of democracy and bureaucracy. Although theoretically bureaucracy and democracy, the increased power and reach of the state seems to conflict, in principle, with democratic demands against it, this apparent paradox is not difficult to explain. Democratic participation has increased ordinary people’s expectations about conditions and quality of life. In a society in which does not generate enough wealth to enable groups in society to pursue their institutional aims, all demands for amelioration – for hospitals, schools, roads – are directed at the state, which is the only possible source for creation of collective goods. Thus the rise of democracy has reinforced the tendency towards the extension of the bureaucratic state.

For understanding of what Europe has done to the history of other cultures over the long term, the Indian story is significant for two reasons. A common pessimistic argument asserts that the ‘export’ of the state, with bounded territories and modern institutions of governance, to other parts of the world through European colonialism has largely failed. In fact, it has forced people to live their lives, unsuccessfully, under uncomprehended frameworks leading to increased tensions and expanded violence. Eventually, the argument runs, such historical experiments have failed leading to common experiences of state collapse. The Indian case encourages a more optimistic conclusion: it shows that a country comprising nearly a fifth of the world’s population has successfully mastered the techniques of establishing the modern state and, despite widespread illiteracy learnt to work the principles of democracy in their own way. Despite the complex demands on its ideological and material resources India has not seen a collapse of its institutional structure leading to a breakdown of minimal social order. Interestingly, although its state has been evidently overstretched, it has managed to avoid complete bankruptcy and failure to provide basic services. India has avoided the threat of a ‘state collapse’ in both the economic and more fundamental political forms.

Perhaps the most astonishing part of the Indian story has been the relative success of democracy. There have long been arguments in political theory that have asserted economic or cultural conditions for the success of democratic government. Either a certain level of prior economic growth, or an underlying cultural common sense which accords equal value to individuals have been regarded as necessaru preconditions for the success of democratic institutions. The relative success of Indian democracy defies both arguments. In the politics of one of the poorest countries of the world, with a traditional order based on the pure principle of hierarchy, democracy has been for half a century a universally uncontested ideal. But ‘success of democracy’ in India can mean two different things. In much of Western journalism, and a part of academic analysis as well success of democracy simply means the uninterrupted continuance of electoral politics. Actually, however, the ‘success’ of Indian democracy ought to be viewed in Tocqueville’s terms – as the historical development of a social force that has transformed fundamental social relations of everyday lives. It is true that the historical outcomes, the political trajectories of this story of democracy have been quite different from the great European stories of democratic transformation. But that is hardly suprirising. Democratic institutions operate on the basis of template of the specific sociability available in each society. If democracy achieves success in other non-European societies in future, their trajectories are likely to resemble the Indian narrative rather than the European ones. It is impossible to predict the exact direction this narrative of political transformation of a hierarchical society might take; but, despite the fact that it has happened in relative historical silence, without the dramatic violence that accompanied the American or French revolutions, it will rank as a story of one of the great transformations of modern history.

[1] F. Guizot, History of Civilisation in Europe, Translated and edited by L. Seidentop, Penguin, Harmondsworth,

[2] It is important to strike a note of complexity here. Recent historical research has suggested that the radical break in Indian history was not the establishment of colonial power. Certain changes in the economic and political structures of power in Indian society were already under way in the 18th century. The British could establish their regime in India precisely because they went with these trends. Thus the break between the colonial and the pre-colonial has to be seen in a considerably more complex fashion than earlier, primarily nationalist historiography suggested.

[3] See C A Bayly, Indian Society and British Empire, CUP, 1989. For a different argument, and based on a different regional perspective, Nicholas Dirks, The Hollow Crown, and S Subrahmanyam and Others,

[4] Charcaterising this entire society as Hindu is both misleading and anachronistic. It is misleading in the sense that it makes it appear that this society had a self-consciousness of being a single unit, which it clearly did not have. Secondly, Hindu is paradoxically inescapable anachronistic appellation. These groups did not have a common name for themselves, though they had an unspoken awareness that they had a common religious character, when compared to other religions like Islam. On the question of appellations, see D. Lorenzen, ‘Who invented Hinduism?’, Comaprative Studies in Society and History, 2000.

[5] Al Biruni the great Islamic scholar despaired of discovering any doctrinal singleness in the Hindu sects, but decided, brilliantly, that they key to their unity lay in a sociological order of Brahminism. Al Biruni’s India.

[6] The ideology of the caste system is concerned with a meticulous enumeration of the possible and legitimate grounds on which one individual could be given precedence over another. One of the slokas of the Manusmrt, the canonical text specifying caste conduct states:

[7] This principle ruled out competition for these goods, except among members of the same caste. But the caste system was consistent, if nothing else. By territorial segmentation, it sough to reduce even intra-caste competitiveness.

[8] The Manusnrti, the most wellknown and widely used reference for social rules, for instance, ladi down detailed rules for the coduct of each major caste, including those of the ruler. The text does not set up and advisory relation with the rulers, as in the case of early modern European texts of avice for princes; it speaks in a tone of assured authority.

[9] Several modern historians have observed this peculiarity of political power in traditional India, and consequently, argued against the casual extension of an unqualified concept of the state. In recent historiography, authors have borrowed the idea of a ‘segmentary state’ from political anthropology dealing with Africa. Bernard Cohn made the initial suggestive borrowing, and it has been continued with slight modification by Burton Stein. My argument is not about segmentation of territorial jurisdiction, but limitation of political authority over social functions. But this argument supplements the other. See Burton Stein, ‘State formation revisited’, Modern Asian Studies,

[10] There can be two different arguments about this question. The first, more common, asserts the peculiarity of South Asian Islam, and points to the coexistence of Islamic imperial power with caste society, and lack of wholesale covnversion as evidence that Indian Islam should be treated as a separate religious formation. Accepatnce of the social order of caste would then be seen as a special feature of South Asian Islamic culture. But it is also possible to argue that this kind of relation between political authority and a ‘scoail constituion’ is more common. Some historians have argued that there existed a very similar relation between an Islamic ‘social constitution’ and a predominantly ‘exeutive’ political authority in Middle Esatern Islamic empires as well. In that case, this should be seen as a general feature of Hindu, Islamic and generally of agrarian, religious, premodern societies. See, for the second view, K.A. Nizami,

[11] It is necessary to recognise that although the colonial state in India was a formal part of the imperial political institutions, its actual governing institutions and principles were quite different from the ones in Britain. Historians have pointed out that many experimental measures were first tried out in the colonies, and then brought back to the metropolitan system. More generally, too colonial governing experience at times had a serious influence on internal political rule. See, for example, Sudipta Sen, ‘The Colonial frontiers of the Georgian state’ Journal of Historical Sociology, Blackwells,

[12] For the new historical arguments suggesting this ‘indigenous’ force in favour of British success, see C A Bayly, Indian Society, David Washbrook, MAS, 1988, and in A Porter (ed) Burton Stein, ‘State formation reconsidered’, MAS, Parallel arguments are advanced in Sanjay Subrahmanyam(ed)

[13] Recently, much work has been done on how the information order of colonial India was created, and how it underpinned colonial administration. See, for instance, D. Irschik, University of California Press, Berkeley, 199, and C A Bayly, Empire and Information, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1998.

[14] I have discussed this in greater detail in ‘The imaginary institution of India’ in Gyanendra Pandey and Partha Chatterjee (eds) Subaltern Studies, vol VII, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1994. Cf also Arjun Appadurai, ‘Number in the colonial imagination’ in Orientalism and the Post-colonial Predicament, Pennsylvania University Press, Philadelphia, 1996.

[15] For a detailed account of the intellectual debates around sati, see Lata Mani, Contentious Traditions: The debate on sati in colonial India, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1998.

[16] British utilitanrians had a particularly close association with the making and administering of colonial policies. Both James and John Stuart Mill worked at the India Office; and utilitarian doctrines had extensive influence on policy making in general. Indeed, some of the more radical and controversial suggestions of utilitarianism, which could not be tried out in Britain because of opposition from others, could be tested in India, and on the evidence of their success, brought back to the metropolitan society.

For the influence of utilitarianism in colonial policy, see Eric Stokes, English Utilitarians and India,

[17] For an excellent general treatment of this particular dilemma of liberal theory, see Uday Singh Mehta, Liberalism and Empire, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1997. For the ideology of the British Empire, David Armitage, The Ideological Origins of the British Empire, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2000.

[18] Mills’ arguments about India can be found in his On Liberty, introduction, especially pp 73 Considerations of Representative Government, chapters XVI and XVII. His detailed comments on Indian government are collected in Writings on India, Collected Works of J S Mill, XXX, edited by John M Robson, Martin Moir and Zawahir Moir, Routledge, London, 1990.

[19] One of the most famous cases of such arguments in J S Mill are in On Liberty, chapter and On Representative Government

[20] I have presented an argument about these changes in greater detail in ‘ The imaginary institution of India’, in Gyan Pandey and Partha Chatterjee (eds), Subaltern Studies, Volume 7, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1994.

[21] For an excellent discussion about the contexts from which Gandhi’s thought emerged, see Bhikhu Parekh, Colonialism, Tradition and Reform, Sage Publications, New Delhi, 1994, and the more concise Gandhi, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1999.

[22] The best representative of this modernist strand is Jawaharlal Nehru. For his ideas about nationalism and its intellectual origins, see Sarvepalli Gopal, Jawaharlal Nehru, Volume I, Jonathan Cape, London, 1981. Gopal’s subsequent volumes, II and III, tend to ignore intellectual arguments in its treatment of the post-independence part of Nehru’s life. For an excellent presentation of a ‘Nehruvian’ argument in the current context see Sunil Khilnani, The Idea of India, Hamish Hamilton, London, 1997, chapter 4: ‘Who is an Indian?’. The ideas and ideals of the poet, Rabindranath Tagore, are also highly significant in the evolution of a ‘modernist’ nationalism, though he was more critical of several aspects of capitalist modernity in the West than Nehru. The best example of his ideas about ‘who is an Indian?’ is in his famous novel, Gora, translated by S. Mukherjee, Orient Longman, Delhi,1996.

[23] These arguments raged in nationalist discussions from the thirties, but they were formulated with great precision and purposefulness in the debates of the Constituent Assembly of India from 1946 to November 1949. These debates are analysed in Granville Austin, India’s Constitution: The Cornerstone of A Nation, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1964. I have analysed some of these arguments in ‘Modernity and Politics in India’, Daedalus, Winter, 2000.

[24] Granville Austin, The Indian Constitution, chapter.

[25] The political aspects of the partition of India had been a conventional subject for historians. Recently, a new history of the partition has started to emerge which focus on narratives of women and suffering individuals, attempting to unearth the darker sides of that history which got lost in the analysis of politics of large groups. See, in particular, Urvashi Butalia, The Other Side of Silence, C. Hurst, London, 2000, and Gyanendra Pandey, Remembering Partition, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, forthcoming.

[26] Major institutional changes were introduced several times in the first half of the twentieth century. The Morley-Minto reforms of 192 began the processes of institutional change; further changes in the structure of government with government by Indian parties in the provincial legislatures were introduced by the Government of India Act of 1935. The first elective governments took office in 1937. This act formed the main legal template for certain parts of the constitution adopted in 1950.

[27] Granville Austin, The Indian Constitution analyses the discussions about universal suffrage. More detailed treatment can be found in B. Shiva Rao (ed) , The Making of the Indian Constitution, I.I.P.A., four volumes, Delhi, 1964.

  1. notrelevantnow says:

    Please let me know if this article has been published anywhere. I noticed that some references are a bit dated (Iike the G Pandey reference in n.25).

    thank you,

  2. Aditya Nigam says:

    Yes, it has been published recently in one of the three vol set published by Permanent Black in 2010. Perhaps it is in the volume entitled ‘The Imaginary Institution of India’

  3. notrelevantnow says:

    thank you for letting me know!

  4. [...] Kaviraj, Sudipta.‘The Post-colonial State: The Special Case of India’, Critical Encounters (Web Journal), 2009.… [...]

  5. Sushil Suresh says:

    Although this article has some interesting observations its understanding of western history is very limited and partial, and so is its delineation of developments in India and their sources and causative factors; and finally the Indian nationalistic sentiments of the author has resulted in a weak article that hasn’t been able to move very far beyond the conventional debates around elections and the nation’s institutions.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s