India has taken a sharp right turn at the crossroads of history.

In March 2021, the Sweden-based V-Dem Institute, an independent research institute based at the University of Gothenburg, classified India as an “electoral autocracy”, noting that much of the decline in democratic freedoms occurred after the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power seven years ago. Since then, India’s slide towards the shadow of authoritarianism has been swift, from the abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir to the auctioning of Muslim women online to the jailing of human rights’ activists, lawyers and scholars under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act to the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act.

This has been lent momentum by what once used to be called “the fringe,” but is now unmistakably mainstream. Since 2014, the calls for the consolidation of a purely majoritarian “Hindu Rashtra” have only grown louder, with the most recent being in December 2021, where a three day “Dharam Sansad” in Haridwar saw an assortment of luminaries from the Hindutva ecosystem taking the stage to call openly for genocide against Muslims.

The current political scenario seems a far cry from what was promised by the democratic rights enshrined in India’s Constitution, and by the nation’s founding fathers, who sought to establish a pluralistic, tolerant society in a country where varying ethnicities, religions, castes, classes and languages (and many other distinctions!) co-exist. Yet if the situations in 1947 and 2022 – their causes, contexts and consequences – are different, there is a thread of commonality.

The power of ideas

Ideas are the beating heart of Shruti Kapila’s Violent Fraternity: Indian Political Thought in a Global Age. Published in 2021 by Princeton University Press, the gist of Kapila’s argument is both simple and necessary: if we are to better understand the age we live in, and how we got here, we would do well to look back at the sources of our intellectual history.

For India, this would mean understanding that the men we take for granted as influential political actors of their time – Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Muhammad Iqbal, BR Ambedkar, Vinayak Sarvarkar – were also innovative political thinkers. It is not that this fact hasn’t been understood before, of course. But given where India stands in 2022, the need to take a closer look at these political stalwarts and how they shaped modern Indian political thought assumes a greater significance.

This need is the driving focus of Kapila’s book, in which she analyses a plethora of Indian political leaders to present a repositioning of some of the key themes of our time – sovereignty, violence and nationalism. From the dawn of the twentieth century to the independence of India and the formation of Pakistan in 1947, violence is the thread that runs through the book, from the end of the first (albeit failed) mass movement in Indian politics – the Swadeshi or Home Rule movement of 1905-1908, triggered by the proposal to partition Bengal, to the transfer of power in 1947 and its bloody fallout.

Kapila’s focus, however, is not on events or personalities as much as it is on intellectual debate. In what is a remarkable achievement, she centrally positions the power of ideas as one of the lynchpins of modern India’s political foundations.

In so doing, Kapila presents an idea herself – of the process by which enmity turns to violence, and how both twine intimately to poison the chalice of liberty and equality – by deliberately maiming that vital third: fraternity. Ignoring the concept of fraternity when we talk of “liberty, equality and fraternity” is a risk we undertake at our own peril, she argues.

In Violent Fraternity, for example, the result of the transfer of power in 1947 is revised to be presented as a fratricidal civil war, marking the presence of “the people” as the driving focus of a new India (and Pakistan). Nowhere more clearly is the concept of a “violent fraternity” seen, Kapila argues, than in the bloodbath that followed Partition – deadly fratricides took place between Hindus and Muslims for months afterward. Questions of sovereignty, of caste, of nationalism and – rather importantly – Hindutva are examined, in their development and their use by the men who mattered on the political stage at the time.

Academic framing

An analysis of intellectual thought – its roots and its various branches – is always tricky. It is an even more mammoth task to undertake when one is examining quite so many roots and so many branches. It is to Kapila’s credit that she has managed to distil all this conversation, sweeping across so many conflicting themes, into a single tome, based on obviously painstaking researching of archives, letters and memoirs.

However, as it stands, Violent Fraternity is a purely academic work, with much of the argument couched in heavy, scholarly prose that makes it difficult going. This is not to take away from its merit. Violent Fraternity is undoubtedly an original, important and very erudite contribution to global scholarship on anti-colonial nationalism – but it is not for the lay reader, which is a pity, since we are, at the moment, battling ideas along with much else.

Indeed, nearly all the themes that Kapila addresses in Violent Fraternity are, in many ways, being mirrored in what is playing out in India’s political scenario currently. The debates over Jawaharlal Nehru’s views and policies, for example, continue. Sarvarkar stands as a prominent Hindutva icon. A colossal statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel towers over Kevadia, in Gujarat – the Statue of Unity.

Today, Hindutva leaders glorify the idea of a mythic past, in an attempt to instil racial and nationalist pride in their people. There is violence in these ideas, as one sees in Kashmir, in the calls for genocide in Haridwar, in the rabidly communal calls at a gathering in Jantar Mantar in Delhi. There is violence in the uncomfortably frequent incidents of Dalit and Muslim lynchings across the land, and in the rise of a dangerous alt-right digital ecosystem where radicalised young men and women style themselves as civilisational warriors.

There is violence in the renaming of August 14 (the date of Pakistan’s independence) Partition Horrors Remembrance Day as well, not to mention the deliberate reconstruction of the idea of citizenship, based on the exclusion of Muslims, as envisaged by the Citizenship Amendment Act.

This ongoing attempt to build a curated intellectual history – in politics, in religion and in personal memory – is both poisonous and dangerous, particularly when there are many other fault-lines simmering below the surface. Now more than ever, it is imperative that the selective narratives doing the rounds today be countered. As political debates in the country have showed time and again, India is living proof of the fact that ideas, unlike men, do not die.

This, then, could have been the book that could have deconstructed the perspectives of monumental political thinkers and actors like Tilak, Gandhi, Patel and Ambedkar, and brought their ideas to reside on the shelves of not just an avid reader, but a concerned citizen. But in presenting Violent Fraternity as an academic work, Shruti Kapila misses the chance of presenting an accessibly written intellectual history that could begin a new and very necessary conversation, to counter the WhatsApp driven narratives that count for ideas in this day and age.

Violent Fraternity: Indian Political Thought in the Global Age

Violent Fraternity: Indian Political Thought in the Global Age, Shruti Kapila, Princeton University Press.