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Challenges of Governing India

Asymmetries of Ideas and Frameworks

Mithilesh Kumar Jha ( teaches political science at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati.

Ideas and Frameworks of Governing India by Ranabir Samaddar, Routledge India, 2016; pp xi + 321, 1,050.

The book under review is a serious attempt to revisit the crucial decade of the 1940s, the era of transition from one mode of governing toanother—from colonial to the postcolonial—in order to capture and analyse various fault lines or challenges of governing India. Ideas and Frameworks of Governing India by Ranabir Samaddar is part of a two-volume series on the study of governance in a postcolonial society like India.

Samaddar starts with a proposition that the study of the processes of governance in a postcolonial society is an essential aspect of the study of democracy in such a society. Together, these two volumes, he claims, are an extension of two previous works: Political Transition and Development Imperatives in India and New Subjects and New Governance in India brought out by theCalcutta Research Group (CRG) in 2012. In these works, the political and ideological aspects of governance are combined with the technological aspects, which, according to Samaddar, are missing in many studies on governance in a postcolonial democracy like India. The business of governance in India, although an essential part of political rhetoric since the beginning of the republic, is marred by many complexities and asymmetries, both at the level of ideas as well as at the level of governing frameworks and structures.

In contemporary times, the decline of autonomy and credibility of public institutions poses a serious challenge to governance as well as the democratic framework of polity in India. What could be the possible explanation for this? Is it the crowd/mob that dominates the governing institutions and structures, or is it the rule of law and the Constitution of India? The processes and institutions of governing India did face similar challenges from the very beginning, especially on the eve of independence when many commentators suspected India’s ability to govern itself. However, some contemporary events do require serious investigation and exploration as regards the inbuilt biases and asymmetries in the governing ideas and frameworks. Samaddar’s is a study in this direction.

In this book, Samaddar claims to study “contesting ideas of self-government that have shaped the nature of governance” and “an overarching framework made of constitutionalism, police and legality” (p vii). Similarly, he divides the book into two parts. In part one, he discusses the “ideals of governance” by exploring some fascinating ideas on self-government as portrayed by Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore and Jayaprakash Narayan or JP. Chapter 4, “Citizen as a Problem Figure for Governance,” successfully captures the fundamental asymmetries of governance in a postcolonial, democratic country like India. Here, citizens are both, right-bearing active participants, in a sense of being sovereign agents, as well as subjects of rule. Therefore, they need to be “controlled,” “disciplined” or “governed.”

Samaddar has persuasively identified and explained this contradiction in governing processes in a democratic society. In the last chapter of the book—and this remains one of the running themes across all the chapters, in the words of the author, “materiality of politics/governance”—Samaddar does raise very fundamental questions about the limitation of juridical arguments about citizenships, rights and legality. In hisopinion (here, one finds the echo of the arguments in Partha Chatterjee’s The Politics of the Governed, 2004), one needs to engage with the “other sites of politics,” which also include semi-legality and even illegality—especially in conditions where large sections of society could not meet their basic needs—to adequately understand the changing subject of politics, and newer and innovative tools and techniques of governance that it necessitates. This, he argues in Chapter 10 through the examples of the closing of dance bars in Mumbai and the questions of legality, illegality and livelihoods that it involved.

In part two, Samaddar discusses the “laws and regulations as the framework of governance.” In this part, there is a chapter on “riot, police and the city” through which he has examined the promises, prospects and the predicaments of urban governance in India. This chapter occupies a significant place in the overall argument of this book. The moments of riot and encampment of the city of Kolkata, the incapacity and unpreparedness of the police forces to maintain law and order in the context of what Samaddar claims to be the “breakdown of colonial governance,” and the competing politics of the Congress and the Muslim League, with Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy as the chief minister, in a week of killings, maiming and lootings from 16 August 1946 (Direct Action Day called by the Muslim League to push their demand for a separate Pakistan) is a cruel reminder of the asymmetries, inbuilt biases, the religious nature of “secular” polity and the abject failure of the governance machinery in the presence of the “unruly” society/mobs/crowds. This is also a site and moment to reflect on the contingent relations between the crowd and the police; the reason of the state and the reason of governance. Through the analysis of riots and responses of governing agency, Samaddar has beautifully captured the asymmetries of the “political logic, legal logic, police logic,” which otherwise may seem a part of the same continuum.

Ideals of Self-governance

Samaddar examines the inner tensions of the ideals of self-government as portrayed in the works of Gandhi, Tagore and Narayan. Gandhi’s ideals of Swaraj and quasi-mythical, quasi-historical understanding of the Indian civilisation, and his emphasis on non-violence and search after truth are examined in the context of recurrent themes of wars and violence in the Indian social and political spaces and discourse. In her recent study, Upinder Singh (2017) explores the existence of violence and war in ancient India. She also argues that it was Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and many other nationalists who created this myth of non-violence and characterised Indiaessentially as a peaceful country. Samaddar finds Gandhi’s Ideals Inadequate in tackling “real” events and situations unfolding during the decades approaching independence. Similarly, in the chapter on “Crisis in the Nationalist Ideal of Self-governance,” Samaddar establishes the point as to how the governing of people is different from the governing of the self, which Gandhi championed for so long. Thus, during the transition period of the 1940s, we find many of his colleagues and followers questioning hisideals. The realpolitik demanded the Congress to copy the governing apparatuses of the colonial government.

Contrary to Gandhi, Tagore’s views on politics were centred around the notion of aesthetics, which enables in man the spirit of the unbound. Tagore’s ability to transcend the limits of the horizon was possible due to his belief in this spirit of the man, which Tagore wanted to cherish and celebrate. One of the characteristics that distinguish Tagore from Gandhi, according to Samaddar, was his ability to distinguish anti-colonialism from nationalism. Unlike Gandhi, who was immersed in his time and emphasised karma (duty), for Tagore, the greatest ideal was the “autonomy of the aesthetic self.” One can find traces of this aesthetic legacy of anti-colonial imagination, Samaddar has rightly argued, in the ways people and communities build their lives after each cataclysmic event of governance.

JP provided another model of self-governance by linking the ideals ofnation and democracy. His fascination with both led him to criticise theGandhian alternative as well as the communists. Although, he did adopt the Gandhian model of politics, heremained deeply committed to the ideals ofdemocracy. He was especially vigilant about the challenges ofrepresentative democracy. This forced him to lead the popular mass movement during the Emergency even against the elected representative of the people. JP, as Samaddar rightly argues, “posed the problem of democracy in the age ofdistrust of the representatives” and “brought forward the the issues ofpolitical will with which the power of the representative sovereign was to be confronted” (p 68). The idea of a janta sarkar (people’s government) and lokniti (politics of thepeople), and not rajniti (politics of the state) forms the corevocabulary of JP’s politics in From Socialism to Sarvodaya (1957).

Although these ideals of governance as portrayed by these three great thinkers remained somewhat unattainable, these did constitute some of the core ideals of governance in India. Their ideals have helped shape the imagination of the self, nation, democratic government and politics in modern India.

Religion and Bahujan Samaj

In India, there are no spheres of life that are untouched by the influence of religion. Through the example of majority–minority divides, kinship, caste and other social cleavages, Samaddar tries to examine the role of religious beliefs as an ideal of governance and to explain why otherwise “secular” governance carries the marker of religion. And, even our “remorseless” politics is replete withvocabulary such as “trust,” “betrayal” “loyalty,” etc. The competing claims and counterclaims of Hindus, Muslims, Dalits, women and Adivasis make the process of governing extremely challenging. His hope lies with the creation of a bahujan samaj, which requires further and detailed elaboration than is at present provided in the book.

Another interesting point that Samaddar makes in this chapter is by aiming to go beyond the existing debates on secularism in India and by engaging with Jürgen Habermas’s idea of post-secular society and modifying it with the notion of the “religious-secular” subject (p 126). In his opinion, Habermas ignores the effectiveness of such a subject as well as the fact that “secular modes in a society may not have deep foundations and that many aspects of secular power are founded on religious grounds” (p 126). It would have been more convincing and enriching had the author engaged with some recent works like that of Akeel Bilgrami (2014) on secularism. Bilgrami engages with Habermas and Charles Taylor’s ideas on secularism and presents his own argument about the “lexicographical priority” in which the secular and religious may go together if there is no conflict between the ideals of the two. But, if there are conflicts between these two ideals, the priority should be given to the ideals of the polity. One tends to agree with him when he states that secularism in itself is not justified. It is justifiable as it helps achieve some other substantive value/ideal which is possible to achieve by following religious ideals.

Crisis of Constitutionalism

Samaddar has rightly traced the roots of rule of law in a liberal-colonial heritage of law and lawmaking in India. He points out the significant role played by the Act of Evidence, 1872 along with the Indian Penal Code, 1860 and the Indian Criminal Procedure Code, 1898 in establishing the rule of law in a country governed by customs, traditions, faiths and belief systems. And, this was inevitably used as a tool of governance by the postcolonial state in India. Chapter 7 presents a fascinating study of the evolution of the rule of law in a “society of unrest.” Chapter 9 examines the two fundamental constitutional tasks of the postcolonial state in India. First, establishing the “juridical authority of the state,” and second, “legally constituting a government and a people.” And, in this connection, he extensively cites lengthy excerpts from the Constituent Assembly debates, mainly focusing on the arguments presented by B R Ambedkar. Ambedkar’s arguments on the fundamental rights of the citizen while maintaining the sovereignty and stability of the state presenta fine example of the moments of creative tensions. These lengthy excerpts, although a fascinating read, obscureSamaddar’s original arguments.

Finally, in Chapter 10, Samaddarexamines the changing contexts in which constitutionalism has to operate. The new political subjectivity demands serious revision of the liberal juristic argument about democratic and popular politics in a postcolonial society like India. The creation of new subjectivities as a result of internal displacements, urbanisations, rise of bastis, and spaces of illegality and semi-legality requires serious revision of existing theories of constitutionalism and the rule of law; more so, in the context of the increasing tensions between the “legal norms” and “popular ideas of justice.”

Summing Up

This book does engage with some of the challenging issues at the core of theideas and frameworks of governingIndia. Samaddar has done so by revisiting mainly the crucial decade of the 1940s, although in some chapters, he does include other periods by going as far back as the 1870s and revisiting events as recent as the killings of Dalits in Haryana in 2002 and the closing of dance bars in Mumbai in 2005. He has pointed out some of the inherent asymmetries in the framework of state,nation, government, Constitution, and constitutionalism in modern India.

However, there are some obvious flaws in the presentation of the arguments. First, the frequent and long quotations in many chapters—running into several pages (pp 220–25, 241–44, 245–48, 257–60 and so on) and at timesrepeated (p 255 and p 268)—seriously undermine the original arguments that Samaddar tries to make. Reading these, one feels that he ends up making a few passing remarks and small points here and there (especially in the second part of the book) without seriously engaging with any of them. These long quotations, especially from the Constituent Assembly Debates and the Calcutta Disturbances Commission of Inquiry, Records of Proceedings, Minutes of Evidence could have been very well, if required, placed in an appendix. These quotations make the reading dull.

Second, he often invokes Foucault and Derrida—without adequately explaining their ideas, terminologies and their context of writing—to drive home his arguments on the merits and demerits of the key ideals of governance in India. Using their ideas and methods in itself in explaining or examining the frameworks of governance in India is not a problem. But the frequent and many references to their ideas undermine the original arguments that Samaddar is trying to make, as also the uniqueness of the subject matter and context with which one is dealing.


Bilgrami, Akeel (2014): Secularism, Identity, and Enchantment, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Singh, Upinder (2017): Political Violence in Ancient India, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Updated On : 13th Dec, 2017


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