The 20th century was a crowded century. Event piled upon world-historical event to produce a mass of history so heavy with the prospect of annihilation and so alive with the possibilities of individual emancipation that one of humanity’s most extraordinary accomplishments, the constitution of a liberal democratic republic on the Indian subcontinent, went largely unnoticed in the West.
The significance of India’s birth was, however, not lost on a colonial world clamoring for freedom, or African Americans striving to unlock the full promise of America. India’s founding on August 15, 1947, W.E.B. DuBois rhapsodized, would be ‘remembered as the greatest historical date of the 19th and 20th centuries’. The enfranchisement of 400 million people riven by every imaginable difference struck him as a ‘revolution’ more significant than the end of American slavery or the Russian Revolution.
DuBois, as Madhav Khosla’s luminous book shows, was scarcely exaggerating. ‘India,’ Khosla writes, ‘encountered troubles that earlier moments of democratic creation were able to avoid.’ England’s journey from Magna Carta to full adult suffrage occurred over 700 years. India was contrived in circumstances which compressed into a few years the democratic demands and disappointments that had unfolded elsewhere across centuries. Even those sympathetic to its cause feared that India’s history of caste inequity, stupefying poverty and religious antagonism made it an inhospitable terrain for democracy. Could every adult be trusted with the vote when only 12 percent of the population was literate? In the aftermath of India’s savage territorial mutilation to invent a Muslim homeland called ‘Pakistan’, who qualified as an ‘Indian’? And what would be the basis of citizenship of the new state?
If the popularity of Gandhi’s secular Congress party (which led the fight for India’s freedom from Britain) is taken as a credible measure of public opinion, most Indians had little interest in responding to Pakistan with the creation of a constitutionally Hindu state. But the betrayal of Partition quickened the appeal of Hindu nationalists, who began to argue that in a land which had extended its hospitality over millennia to people of every faith, only Muslims saw themselves as a people apart, refused to become assimilated and repaid India’s welcome by tearing the country in two. The millions of Muslims who, horrified at the very idea of Pakistan, chose to remain in India at great personal risk were conveniently airbrushed out from the story.
India’s greatest good fortune was the quality of its leadership. Jawaharlal Nehru, its first prime minister, was secular to his marrow. India, he resolved, was not going to become a ‘Hindu Pakistan’. His determination was augmented by the brilliant mind of B.R. Ambedkar. Born an ‘untouchable’, a member of a community deemed so impure that it is placed outside the hierarchical Hindu caste system, Ambedkar rose to the position of chief drafter of India’s constitution: proof of his intellectual superiority over almost all his colleagues. To comprehend the odds that Ambedkar overcame, George Perkovich once suggested, imagine James Madison attending the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention as a freed slave.
Khosla’s book does an outstanding job of anatomizing how India’s founders wrestled with exceptional challenges. Their responses, he persuasively argues, inaugurated a democratic revolution. A continental diversity had to be administered with laws, united by a powerful state and managed through representation based on the individual. Khosla dismantles the last leg of respectability crafted for Muhammad Ali Jinnah — the founder of Pakistan whose separatist agitation made individuals captive to religious identity — by historians and pundits who decry Hindu nationalists in one breath and exalt an agent of poisonous Muslim nationalism in the next.
India’s founders had the wisdom to see both Hindu and Muslim nationalism as two sides of the same sectarian coin — and the decency, courage and vision to bequeath a constitution that made citizens of a people who had known only subjecthood. And it is the citizens of India who, in the face of unspeakable adversity, are still keeping the promise of the constitution alive. The recent mass uprising against Narendra Modi’s effort to subvert it through a stealthily religious test of citizenship bespeaks the constitution’s sacred status in the Indian imagination.
An intellectual history of an unlikely democracy may sound dull. It isn’t. Khosla, an associate professor of law at Columbia, is a rare breed: an original thinker whose prose, despite years of immersion in academia, exhibits no scholarly contempt for readers. His book, arriving when democracies are in disarray and China is rising, is also a reminder of India’s centrality to a democratic 21st century. As Khosla explains, ‘the experience of Indian democracy is not just the experience of one nation but the experience of democracy itself.’
Kapil Komireddi is the author of Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India (2019). This article is in The Spectator’s March 2020 US edition.