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The past & present | Book Review – Violent Fraternity: Indian Political Thought in the Global Age By Shruti Kapila

A new perspective into the struggle and formation of the Indian state and its continuing saga

While reading on the subject of political thought, intellectual history or history of ideas— whichever terminology one chooses—I always remember my political theory professor in college. The learned and erudite teacher would deliver a highly eloquent but arcane lecture and upon seeing our befuddled faces would pause and say, “The words may be difficult but the idea conveyed is actually very simple.” For us students, it remained a mystery that if the idea was indeed simple, why couldn’t it be conveyed in the same manner?

I was reminded of this professor of mine while going through Shruti Kapila’s Violent Fraternity: Indian Political Thought in the Global Age. The title, the blurbs, the endorsements by leading academics from the field of intellectual history and political thought will propel anyone interested in history-politics to pick up a copy, as it promises a fresh perspective into the struggle and formation of the Indian state and its continuing saga. However, while Kapila’s scholarship may be meticulous—she’s a lecturer in history at the University of Cambridge—the same cannot be said about her work, which leaves one confused, unable to understand what exactly the author wants to say. Maybe the fault lies with me, an ordinary reader who is unable to grasp highly sophisticated academic jargon and convoluted, long-winding sentences. My question remains the same as it was during my student days—if the idea is to explain and unravel some mystery, why wrap it in arcane language? If some invisible hand is working or has worked in the past in our state formation that has bred violent streaks in us, isn’t it better to make the facts lucid enough for as many readers to better understand such factors?

Here’s a random sample: “Fasting, for Gandhi, was the technique and act that interrupted the continuum of life and death that was related to sovereign power. Death, especially in the form of sacrifice, as argued above, became the basis of life with others, whether it was family or fraternity, or friend or foe. In highlighting death as the ultimate individual capacity, Gandhi aimed to rescue sovereign power from its meditating and all-encompassing cages of law and institutions: or bluntly, the modern state.”

Another gem: “Gandhi’s victory in his lifetime over Ambedkar was pyrrhic; his subject-oriented political project was overwhelmed by Ambedkar’s agonism. The Republic’s constitutional architecture, and the trumping by sovereignty of the concern with fraternity, makes Ambedkar’s ideological longevity and final victory all too obvious. While the repeated return, in contemporary Indian political discourse, to these two figures testifies to their shared foundational and inexhaustible role, contemporary contestations over their relative reputations and receptions nevertheless reveal the lineaments of new partisan hostilities and identifications, and the dramatic change in their respective reputations suggests an initial set of landmarks whereby to trace changes in political languages under democracy.”

For readers who enjoy such language, then surely the book is a treat for them. However, I am sure that even these readers might find it difficult to enumerate five or six points that the author wants to make. The test of good writing on the subject of political philosophy is how quantitative it can be so that readers can sum up points for or against the arguments made. I fail to agree that the subject of political thought is itself mundane and cannot be explained in a simple manner. If philosophy is to understand the world, the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of society, then it has to be digestible by the common people, or what use it is?

Here, I would like to give an example of Harvard political philosopher Michael J Sandel. If Sandell can explain subjects like merit and justice in a language and form that his courses are viewed by tens of millions of people, then it’s proven that it’s not philosophy that is dull or uninteresting; it’s the writers and teachers of the subject.

Why I say the subject of the book is interesting but the manner it has been presented is a lost opportunity is because Kapila has chapters on most notable leaders who have fashioned Indian political thought—Tilak, Ghadarites, Savarkar, Gandhi, Amebdkar, Iqbal, and Patel. Whether one agrees with their course of action and political thinking or not, the fact is that they continue to fashion current political shades and debates and the course which the Indian State is taking or may take in future. Analysing them, therefore, should be done in a manner that is highly reader-friendly and caters to a wider audience than just remaining an academic acrobatic exercise.

The book may appeal to a section of academics—I would say a very narrow section comprising micro specialists in the field, as the larger academia may also find it boring. To be clear, I am not questioning Kapila’s academic credentials, her grounding in the subject and her research abilities, all of which are impeccable; but the manner of presentation is highly disappointing. Hope there is a simpler version for non-academic readers soon.

Violent Fraternity: Indian Political Thought in the Global Age
Shruti Kapila
Princeton University Press
Pp 328, Rs 3,000

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