Power and Contestation: India since 1989 by Nivedita Menon and Aditya Nigam

One of the watersheds in a humanities student’s life is when history goes from being incidents that happened in the irrelevant past to the key to understanding a muddled present. This slim volume seems to recognize that, relating the history of post-Independent India’s most transformative decades with an eye firmly on the present.

Writing the history of a polity as complex as India’s has daunted writers of much weightier tomes; resulting in an abundance of detailed literature on sub-themes while the crucial element of fitting them all together is usually left to the imagination of the reader. The authors here do an admirable job of adroitly balancing brevity and complexity, and the result is a 200-page book that serves as an excellent introduction to a left perspective on Indian politics.

Of course, the Left in India (as elsewhere) is notoriously fractious, a reality that is addressed elaborately in this book. The authors clearly delineate practices of left governments (most famously, the neo-liberal regime in West Bengal, an eastern Indian state masquerading as a communist government) with those of left parties and left movements, setting themselves firmly in the latter camp. While the two lefts agree on certain matters, such as anti-imperialism and disarmament; on the more domestic issues of what is known in Indian popular discourse as “development” they have emerged as fierce opponents.

Most of the movements protesting the noxious collusion between corporate mining and industry and governments of every stripe across India have been decidedly left wing in flavour, and it is in West Bengal that they have found some of their strongest proponents and the fiercest repression. At a time when the “maoists” (the armed, radical left now sweeping across rural India) have sharply polarized debate across India, this book is a timely reminder to contextualize the violence, and that the goals that the movement seeks are not as contemptible as the means it espouses.

Nigam and Menon remind us of the rich history non violent protest has had in subaltern India, and that the recourse to violence is a measure of desperation rather than entitlement. This is a point that has been made repeatedly by activists and writers such as Arundhati Roy: that the privileging of violence is implicit in the state’s inability or unwillingness to act upon non violent dissent.

Another controversial debate that Nigam and Menon unlock is the one over reservations in government employment and education on grounds of caste. Caste is the old bogeyman of the modern Indian citizen, the identity he is reluctant to either abandon or recognize. As a system of exploitation, it is unrivaled globally in its entrenched sophistication; yet its very effectiveness lies in the extent to which is internalized. It is a diffuse web of allegiances and obligations, its operational diversity across the geographies of India (the most prominent being the urban/rural divide) masking the essential coherence of its logic.

Unlike the more brutal divides of class, caste is insidious and layered, pitting the disenfranchised against the more disenfranchised for the benefit of the elite. The authors, in keeping with their crosscutting approach, attempt to link caste to other themes in Indian politics, notably secularism and feminism. They demonstrate, for instance, how the combined machinations of electoral politics and caste in India has created unlikely allies between political formations representing the Brahmins (the upper-est of the upper castes) and the Dalits (the lowest of the downtrodden); a dilemma that has puzzled many observers of Indian coalition politics in the recent past.

The most inspired essay in this book comes towards its close. In their chapter on insurgencies faced by the Indian state (there are two, apart from the “maoist” one discussed earlier- in Kashmir and in the North-East), the authors savagely and brilliantly deconstruct the mythos of nationalism that plagues most Indian political thought. Building on an old idea of the critical left, that the Indian state was constructed (rather than the organic sounding “born”) in 1947; the authors recount the little known story of northeastern India’s struggle for autonomy and acceptance both before and after independence.

It’s a story of almost unrelenting despair, which took on epic proportions in 2000 with Irom Sharmila’s now ten year long hunger strike protesting the depredations of the army in her native state of Manipur (one of the “seven sisters” of the Indian northeast). Unlike Kashmir, kept on the boil and the international radar because of India’s fraternal spats with her nuclear neighbour; the northeast was almost wiped from our collective conscience till recent flare ups with China have thrust it back again onto our headlines in the past year.

None of the material discussed in Power and Contestation will be new to veteran India watchers, though some of the insights are likely to be, considering the Indian left’s inability to present its perspective to an engaged layperson, especially one not based in India. That this book was first published by Zed Books in London is a clear indication of its intended audience, and for a person new to Indian politics it is an accessible and comprehensive outline.

The only limitation, insofar as scope is concerned, is in the absence of a fleshed out discussion of India’s oscillating foreign policy over the years; which has seen as much of a paradigm shift in the past two decades as her domestic politics has. Yet for an international populace bombarded with a certain image of India- “vibrant democracy”, “burgeoning superpower” and “booming economy” being the chief taglines associated with the country, this book provides an illuminating look at the difficult and layered reality behind the shiny new malls and Bollywood movies.

RATING 8 / 10