Ideas of India is a podcast in which Mercatus Senior Research Fellow Shruti Rajagopalan examines the academic ideas that can propel India forward. You can subscribe to the podcast on Apple, Spotify, Google, Overcast, Stitcher or the podcast app of your choice.
In this episode, Shruti speaks with Adeel Hussain and Tripurdaman Singh about their book, “Nehru: The Debates That Defined India.” They discuss homogeneity in parliamentary democracies, tensions between liberalism and cultural traditions, the branches of the Indian and Pakistani governments and much more. Hussain is an assistant professor at Leiden University and a senior research affiliate at the Max Planck Institute for International Law in Heidelberg. His research focuses on jurisprudence, comparative constitutional law, international law and the global history of legal and political thought, with a regional emphasis on South Asia and Europe. Singh is a British Academy postdoctoral fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. His work explores the broad themes of sovereignty, state formation, decolonization and constitution making.
SHRUTI RAJAGOPALAN: Welcome to Ideas of India, a podcast where we examine academic ideas that can propel India forward. My name is Shruti Rajagopalan. Today my guests are Adeel Hussain and Tripurdaman Singh, the authors of the new book “Nehru: The Debates That Defined India.”
Adeel is an assistant professor at Leiden University and a senior research affiliate at the Max Planck Institute for International Law in Heidelberg. Tripurdaman is a British Academy postdoctoral fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London.
We talked about Nehru’s debates with Iqbal, Jinnah, Patel and Mukherjee; the Muslim identity and separate electorates; Carl Schmitt’s critique of democracy; if Nehru was a reluctant constitutionalist; the Indian and Pakistani Supreme Court and more.
For a full transcript of this conversation, including helpful links of all the references mentioned, click the link in the show notes or visit Discourse Magazine DOT COM.
Hi, Adeel. Hi, Tripurdaman. Thanks so much for being here.
ADEEL HUSSAIN: Hi, Shruti. Thank you for having us.
TRIPURDAMAN SINGH: It’s an absolute pleasure.
RAJAGOPALAN: I recently read your book called “Nehru: The Debates That Defined India.” You’ve got Nehru debating various people—Iqbal, Jinnah, S.P. Mukherjee, Patel, so on. He was a prolific letter writer, of course, great at giving speeches and great at parliamentary debates.
One of the first sections that you deal with are the Nehru-Iqbal conversations. I want to go back a little bit—maybe, Adeel, also to some of your earlier work. One of Carl Schmitt’s observations or critiques of parliamentary democracy is that it requires a high degree of homogeneity to succeed. To me, it seems like the Nehru-Iqbal debates capture that fundamental problem in some way.
Of course, the main difference is that for Nehru, the homogeneity must be economic through a kind of socialism where we can get similar outcomes for everyone. For Iqbal, the homogeneity is religious or cultural in one sense. Is this a good way of thinking about their debate?
HUSSAIN: I think you’ve captured it almost fully with the reference to Carl Schmitt. Maybe for those listeners who are not aware of the political theorist Carl Schmitt—Carl Schmitt really comes into or gains academic notoriety really in the 1920s and ’30s as one of the key theoreticians of the Weimar Republic. The Weimar Republic was this thing that happened between the two wars. Germans came together and tried their first experiment in democracy. Carl Schmitt was the person who was pointing out the different flaws that he saw emerging in that.
One of the flaws, as you rightly pointed out, for him was the notion that liberalism—this new ideology that was taking more and more root within legal debates—was creating a subject that he felt could no longer be political. Now, for him, it was really important to be political because he thought that a nation-state that doesn’t have a nation that can be political is going to be drowned in the global arena of the 20th century. He made a couple of big claims around how you can acquire that type of national homogeneity.
In the case of Germany, of course, he did it through the exclusion of minorities. That’s the nasty period in which Carl Schmitt dips in the 1930s and is actively trying to eradicate the influence of Jewish thinkers from German public law. He aligns himself with a political movement that is, at the time, garnering much public attention, which is the National Social Democratic Party that has taken root in Germany at the time.
If we were to say that similar patterns also emerge around the globe, then Muhammad Iqbal would be somebody who makes a similar conceptual move like Carl Schmitt. You’ve put these two things together: That essentially he’s not that far apart from Nehru, who also sees the dire want of producing a nation. For him, the national subject should primarily be defined through economic means, which means that the big question of the early 20th century, as it emerges in India, isn’t really the Hindu-Muslim question. It isn’t really about religion as a solid source that can give you an identity and a political identity as such. But for Nehru, it’s really poverty that is uniting most Indians. It’s the economy that is producing that type of subjectivity.
Of course, Nehru would make that move because it also was a very prominent way of thinking about the individual at the time. He’s driven by a specific socialist agenda that isn’t limited to the nation-state. That goes well beyond the nation-state and his later adventures into internationalism. Once he becomes the prime minister of the Indian republic, he really goes in that same direction.
But essentially the major conceptual disagreement that he really has is with Muhammad Iqbal, the great Muslim philosopher, who’s theorizing on how to bring Indian Muslims together, a community that is in itself deeply ruptured along the lines of language, ethnicity and all other aspects. Iqbal is trying to unite them around Islam, and Nehru is really saying that, “Hmm, does that really work?”
RAJAGOPALAN: Sometimes I wonder if this extends even to what is happening in the Modi period, especially the current Hindutva umbrella.
Hindutva is basically trying to create a parliamentary democracy, now with a different kind of homogeneity, which is around the Hindu identity. They actually want to destroy or break down all the differences between caste and language and so on, and come up with a far less fractionalized, far more united Hindu identity. And that’s going to be the nation-building exercise. Or is this just too far a reach from the debate of that time?
SINGH: I think I’ll just sort of jump in a bit. I don’t think you’re entirely wrong. I do think there’s a lot of force to that argument, but there’s also divergence. And that is, A, a conception of sacred geography that Hindutva has that, for example, is not something that Iqbal is talking about—the conception that there is this sacred geography that’s just been divinely ordained, almost, of which there is a vivisection. There is historical revisionism.
Then there’s also the crucial question of modernity. Hindutva and modernity share a very strange relationship because it’s a phenomenon that’s only made possible by modernity. But at the same time, it’s one of these ideologies that is seeking inspiration from the past. Here I’m thinking back to, for example, the concept of retrotopia that Bauman really fashioned.
It’s a phenomenon that modernity brings into being, but also modernity of the kind that the West has lost, but a force that is also exhausted. It doesn’t have a future point that these guys can look up to. I think these few factors—while there is something in common between the argument that Iqbal is making and the argument that Hindutva brings to the fore, there are also these crucial differences, which I don’t think we can overlook.
Nehru and Modi
RAJAGOPALAN: Here I want to come to a common criticism that both Jinnah and Iqbal make of Nehru. Nehru’s view that holding onto the Muslim identity almost implies a certain anti-national tone, because here the Muslim identity sort of surpasses the nation-building project, whether it is participating in the 1928 Motilal Nehru-led report and constitutional project, or whether it’s a Round Table Conference and so on.
Again, bringing this back to modern times, all the current discourse in India, if you’ve been following it, is about how Nehru and Modi are completely different. You know what the association is in the whole Nehru and the current Modi debate. Now I feel almost like there is a similarity between the criticism of Nehru that Iqbal and Jinnah make, which is that holding onto the Muslim identity is essentially anti-national.
The same thing is happening with the Hindutva movement, which is this idea that anyone who holds onto the Muslim identity in India is necessarily anti-national because the national identity somehow needs to be more important, or that’s the signal that needs to be made. Therefore there needs to be a certain kind of erasure of the Muslim identity. Do you see that parallel? I know they have very different ways of going about this. But it seems to be an interesting critique of Nehru that I had never come across until I read your book.
HUSSAIN: Yes. It’s definitely one of the themes that we were playing with when we picked that specific debate. It’s really got to do with the utopian imagination that comes with both of these projects, be it the Hindutva project or the socialist project that Nehru had, which have a very distinct teleology, and they see history transforming in a very specific direction. For them, history has a purpose and a name, and every day we come a step closer to that history. Everybody who’s deviating from that path, who’s holding on to specific elements, cultural elements of their identity is stopping that progress and stopping the movement from reaching its aim in time.
It’s definitely something that Nehru was more or less making explicit when he was debating both Iqbal and Jinnah. He does it from a place where he assumes that he has the intellectual high ground—and the intellectual high ground because he has understood something about the historical unfolding of time through his careful reading of Karl Marx—that he feels that these two figures have not. There’s a similar way in which we, again, see a specific intellectual superiority that is stemming from the Hindutva movement, which also believes that history is moving in a specific direction that sees the establishment of specific temples in specific places.
SINGH: I slightly disagree with Adeel. I agree with the broad point that you make that there is a lot of similarity. But I disagree with Adeel in that I don’t think it’s just to do with a belief in historical forces or in a utopian vision. There are also very personal things that bring the two together: That is the overwhelming presence, the desire to have around them quiet people who are in agreement with them. This overwhelming desire to refashion the nation. I should put it this way: There’s a very revealing quote that Sarvepalli Gopal has in his biography of Nehru, where he describes the Nehru cabinet as a group of “mouldering mediocrities.”
There are quite a few similarities. I don’t think they’re simply limited to ideology. There’s also similarities of, in a sense, personality. If you look at many of these debates—for example, you look at the debate with S.P. Mukherjee—Nehru is constantly alluding to the fact that the nation is under some sort of siege. There’s these unseen forces conspiring against the country.
There’s a lot of thematic, I’d say, overlap between Nehru and Modi. It’s a point that people don’t often make. There’s also this belief that the state is going to guide social progress. Look at something like the slogan of Atmanirbhar Bharat of self-reliant India. There is tremendous thematic overlap, I think.
Secularism and Religious Identity
RAJAGOPALAN: I think the idea of Nehru being a little bit paranoid about the nation under siege, you bring it out beautifully in your earlier book. This is on the First Amendment, “Sixteen Stormy Days.” For me, the part that I had never really thought of was the Muslim identity question because to everyone in at least the popular rhetoric that we’ve all grown up in—I grew up in a very Nehruvian curriculum being taught in India. The idea is Nehru’s secular. He’s inclusive.
The more we start juxtaposing his views with Jinnah and Iqbal, now it starts bringing into very sharp contrast that there is, in the process of being secular and inclusive, there is also a demarcation of what is a valid identity of an individual or what is a valid religious belief of the individual and whether that can supersede other projects. That to me was quite fascinating in these debates.
SINGH: You could also flip that, as many people do, to say that actually Nehru had a change of heart after partition. And his quite strong secularism really went out of the window, and he, for the first time, is confronted with the true force of religious identity. And then he is forced to concede ground in the form of things like civil law, et cetera, et cetera. The point can be made both ways depending on how one really conceptualizes secularism.
RAJAGOPALAN: Even that secularism is asymmetric in India, which has suddenly come back again in waves. The idea that you can modernize one religious grouping without needing to modernize another kind, which can still be rooted in its traditional practices or be highly decentralized and do whatever the local sects are recommending. But the personal law, when it comes to Hindus, everything needs to be modernized.
Integrating Liberalism with Cultural Traditions
RAJAGOPALAN: I wanted to dig in a little bit on S.P. Mukherjee. I had never seen the parallels between S.P. Mukherjee and Iqbal. This is the first time I saw that. Not just because it’s a debate in which the person on the opposite side is Nehru. These are the First Amendment debates that you have in the book between S.P. Mukherjee and Nehru, which are now stuff of legend. S.P. Mukherjee, also the founder of Jana Sangh—when we look at these debates, it seems like for him the power is rooted in the individual but within the framework of religious identity. To me it seems like Iqbal is the same.
The idea of constitutionalism or civil association in a republic is very much rooted in the individual within the broader framework of religious identity. For both of them, it doesn’t seem like the religious authorities (if any) that they acknowledge are going to be dictating in some top-down way what the rules are. It’s going to be a bottom-up change coming from the individual.
This is also quite different from the usual South Asian narrative, where any religious identity must be necessarily communal. It can’t be rooted in the individual. If it’s an individual constitutional identity, it has to be secular, and there’s no room for religion there. Or if it’s rooted in religion, then it must necessarily be an Islamic State or something else.
I find this quite interesting, this similarity between S.P. Mukherjee and Iqbal. Did they ever have a conversation about this? Was there some kind of association or coalition between people who believed in Hinduism and individuality and Islamic individuality?
HUSSAIN: I think it’s in very many ways a conservative reaction to modernity that is happening around the world in very different shapes and forms. The book that captures it really nicely is “Recovering Liberties” by C. Bayly, who really makes the argument that what happens in many parts of the world is that liberalism is absorbed in different ways. These ways may seem contradictory when we see liberal constitutionalism as this very straightforward project, where we have a secularization and then the rational individual subject that is trying to reassert itself legally within the political community.
Against that, it’s very much that they’re using, for instance, spirituality, religion, in order to reconnect both to their own history, so to not toss history entirely out of the window and say, “This is all a newfound rational project that we’re engaging in.” But they’re trying to preserve something, and at the same time, they’re profoundly modern subjects. Because both Iqbal’s position and Iqbal’s almost glorification of the individual is a profoundly modern, borderline liberal, glorification. Then again, they try to toy around with ideas of religion in a very similar way.
We can go well beyond that. You mentioned Carl Schmitt right in the beginning. Carl Schmitt has a similar way of reengaging with Catholic thought. I do think that it is a conservative to liberal constitutionalism as it emerges, that both tries to absorb and resist it at the same time.
SINGH: I also think there’s a conscious effort to search for indigenous sources of whatever liberal concepts that they’re absorbing. I remember Sudipta Kaviraj once compared it to the process of really learning a language, and the way native accents continue to impact the way we absorb language and speak foreign languages—Indians speaking English being a good example. I think the process is very similar to that.
RAJAGOPALAN: I also found that it was almost like they were going to a different kind of founding moment. Think of the American founding moment; it’s not divorced from religion. Religion is truly an important part of both people settling in America and the American founding moment. In that sense, it feels like the departure or the divorcing of religion from constitutional liberalism seems like a very 1950s project. That’s the departure. S.P. Mukherjee and Iqbal, in some sense, are the continuation of the orthodoxy.
Of course, they are not thought of as such because it’s South Asia and indigenous, and it doesn’t have this sort of long Anglo tradition backing it. To me, it almost seems like a continuation of other kinds of constitutional moments in other places.
SINGH: I’d agree with that. I do think both of those figures are conscious of that as well. Even though there isn’t, as you say, an Anglo tradition backing it, both are well versed in the Anglo tradition. They’re not unaware of it. They’re not absorbing these concepts of ab initio, one day having a eureka moment after reading a political treatise. I think that that does make a big difference.
RAJAGOPALAN: Yes. Though one important distinction is there’s no specific book or manual that all Hindus automatically subscribe to. Whereas in Islam, there’s the question of, is there an authoritative text or an authoritative group, a council, which will dictate what the rules of the game are in one sense? Iqbal makes a departure from that too. For him it needs to, once again, come from the individual. Even among the people who are looking for a kind of Islamic constitutionalism, he is still different in that regard. I find that quite unique and interesting about him.
HUSSAIN: Yes. That’s really what makes Iqbal a truly creative subject and such a rich subject to study. Whenever you think you have him in a specific frame, he just flips the frame and starts arguing from a different position. Quite a remarkable thinker.
RAJAGOPALAN: Also, there’s a dynamism in his thinking, which is lacking in many of the others who are involved in this nation-building process. There’s this idea that there is no one kind of individual. Even if there is, that’s going to change and morph based on the interaction with both spirituality and other people in society. To me, the only comparable Hindu conservative is C. Rajagopalachari, who’s like Iqbal in the sense that there is going to be an interaction and a dynamism in how people change and modernize themselves without being forced to do so with a colonial Western project. So that’s really lovely.
SINGH: Again, I completely agree with you on that score, and that’s also what makes Rajagopalachari quite interesting, because even his thinking, I’d say, goes through this arc. And I had mentioned my previous book—there’s another revealing quote from him just as he’s vacating what was then Viceroy’s House because he was the last governor general. And he vacates it and he says, “What we want is, we want revival of ancient feudal manners, but in the language and garb of democracy.”
It’s something like that which I think revealed this sometimes contradictory, sometimes complementary idea that several of these figures had, where you could actually bring these two streams where you could find indigeneity or ideas rooted in South Asian concepts, but you could do that within the language that was being provided by modernity and the constitution. I think that’s what makes all of these figures particularly interesting.
Jinnah as a Constitutionalist
RAJAGOPALAN: Yes. In all of this, the one person I feel quite bad for is Jinnah. Adeel, I’m pretty sure this is not true of Pakistan, but when you are studying Jinnah and his works and his role in the Indian nationalist movement, it is almost always reduced to the Muslim question and the question of separate electorates. That’s the focal point or the anchor point.
When I read his debates with Nehru, especially the ones in your book, to me it feels like he’s the Enlightenment-conception constitutionalist. For him, interests are central. So, in one sense, this is the Adam Smith project of, how do we find institutions, including the market, where you can align self-interest and social interest, and that’s the project?
In the conversations he’s having with Nehru, it’s almost like this Madisonian project, right? You need to align self-interest with social interest in society through constitutional checks and balances. A big part of that is checking democracy and protecting minority interests, in this case through separate electorates. At least that’s the way I read his idea of separate electorates in this particular debate that ambition must counteract ambition, and this is all going to come down to self-interested politicians or something like that.
So to me that’s remarkable because we never think of Jinnah as a constitutionalist, at least in Indian thought. We always think of him as, “Oh, this is the person who wanted separate electorates.” And it was a Muslim question. It’s an identity question. It’s not a constitutional question. In your book, you almost flip it. I don’t know if that was intentional, but that’s what came across to me, that it’s actually a different constitutional question than the one that Nehru’s asking.
HUSSAIN: You’re correct in your reading regardless of how you read those debates because they can be interpreted in very many ways. I do think that the question of separate electorates is a profoundly constitutional question. That is the entirety of their question, is that it is a constitutional question about representation and how a specific liberal framework can accommodate minorities, when those minorities both weigh in such a way that European thought can no longer hold it, because the sheer numbers are so big that any type of European imagination could not have foreseen that liberalism would’ve branched out so widely in order to regulate that project.
What I do think—and that’s the argument that I make in my book, “Law and Muslim Political Thought in Late Colonial North India”—is that by the time the ’40s come around, the late 1930s, Jinnah is no longer the constitutionalist as we think of him generally. I would say that the general perception of Jinnah has always been one where he’s primarily constitutionally minded, and he argues the Muslim case as a constitutional lawyer. You pick up any biography of Jinnah that is written in the past 30 years, and there will be at least a somewhat lengthy exploration of how good a lawyer he was and how well he was in the courtroom, and how well he argued that Muslim case.
What I really wanted to bring out here with this conversation is that Jinnah departs from the law and stops believing in the promise of liberalism that he had, for so long, defended both within the Congress Party. And later on, when in parallel he’s a member of the Muslim League and of the Congress Party at the same time. And then when he resigns his membership of the Congress Party and becomes solely a member of the Muslim League that his thought moves away from trying to find constitutional answers to trying to assert the Muslim presence politically.
We see that most prominently, of course, coming to the forefront when he boycotts the Constituent Assembly of India, where he’s invited by Lord Wavell, the viceroy at the time, to participate. And he and all the other Muslim League members boycott and stop going into the Constituent Assembly because they no longer have trust in the constitutional project that the Indian republic seeks to implement.
I do think that the one argument that has generally been made in regard to Jinnah, that he continued to remain a committed constitutionalist, is that he approves the Cabinet Mission Plan. That the last constitutional solution that the British are proposing that will allow India to stay under a united political umbrella is something that Jinnah does accept, albeit for a very brief moment.
Then Nehru is generally seen as the person who gives this famous press conference in 1946 in Bombay, where he says that he no longer feels bound by the promises that the Congress Party has made regarding that. But he thinks that the Constituent Assembly can reinterpret it because sovereignty lies within the Constituent Assembly. It is not something that is transferred from the British, and therefore he cannot contractually limit the Constituent Assembly to hold itself to the promises that it had made to the Muslim League before the elected members have actually gone into the Constituent Assembly.
To me, it seems that Nehru is simply repeating a point that he has made over and over repeatedly and that many people in the Congress Party believe. Whereas Jinnah’s move of accepting the Cabinet Mission Plan is the true anomaly. Because for at least a decade, he’s been the person who said that I no longer believe in any type of constitutional solution that we can have as communities. Then suddenly he briefly comes to agree to that amendment.
Then I do think that the reason that he agreed wasn’t because he’s had a sudden reawakening, that he believed there is a constitutional solution to the problem. But just because Lord Wavell must have shown him, in very dramatic terms, what partition would look like. That the partition that he was looking at was a very truncated Pakistan, which he didn’t really want at that point.
He felt that through the system of grouping, which is really what the Cabinet Mission Plan is—for the listeners who are not mapping these fine-grain differences of constitutional changes in India in the 1940s, the Cabinet Mission Plan really means that you can have groupings where Muslim-majority regions can group together. And Jinnah already reads this as a first step toward Pakistan.
He doesn’t see the Cabinet Mission Plan as something that is going to be permanent and therefore get rid of the idea of Pakistan as a Muslim homeland on Indian soil. But he seems to see the Cabinet Mission Plan as the first step to Pakistan. That’s what he says in all of his speeches that follow his acceptance of the Cabinet Mission Plan, is that this is not a move away from Pakistan, but this is a step toward Pakistan.
I do feel that a lot has been made of him accepting the plan, but that’s not his return as somebody who’s now going to lobby for constitutional safeguards from the Hindu majority. That project, he’s given up. I hope that the debate that he has with Nehru in the late ’30s shows that, to what extent he’s resigned of trying to push forward constitutional demands.
RAJAGOPALAN: I have a follow-up question there. The switch from constitutionalism to a more identity politics in the ’30s, do you think this really stems from the Government of India Act  and the fact that these guys need to get elected in provincial elections right after, and the debates on constitutionalism at the end of the day are just among the elite?
The question of the Muslim identity is something that is going to have far more resonance when you have to go and give speeches and collect donations and stand for elections. Is it just a pragmatist move in one sense? That previously people in the Congress and Muslim League could have had these other debates in writing, and now you’ve just got to really nail down? It’s an electoral math that’s important?
HUSSAIN: I would say that, partially, the democratic logic that enters in the 1930s is responsible for the heightening of this move away from constitutionalism that we see. At the same time, it’s a democratization, so it’s bringing more people into the political fold. In general, it is a very progressive and wanted move that is happening in India. I do believe that if we were to say that it’s solely based on that, then we would also ignore many of the debates that are happening in the 1910s and the 1920s.
The Hindu-Muslim question isn’t something that only springs to the forefront suddenly—that a higher percentage of Indians is allowed to vote. It’s something that is very much at the forefront. The very foundation of the Muslim League happens in the early 20th century, but it’s very much a project that is already looming large, and not something that is just coming out of the moment that we are increasing the franchise when it comes to voting.
Nehru: A Reluctant Constitutionalist?
RAJAGOPALAN: Now I want to ask Tripurdaman about Nehru. I’ve always held that Nehru is a reluctant constitutionalist, but that’s because of my work on constitutional amendments. Anyone who has worked on constitutional amendments like yourself, Tripurdaman—it’s impossible to walk away from that sense that Nehru is, based on the First Amendment, a reluctant constitutionalist. There’s this tension between democracy and constitutionalism. There’s also tension, at least I have argued in my doctoral work, between the socialist project and constitutionalism when it comes to Nehru.
Was Nehru ever a great constitutionalist, or not really? This was part of the nation-building project, and the only way to execute this in a bloodless way without a huge revolution was to do the transfer of power constitutionally as opposed to with an uprising? That’s why he goes along with it, but the idea was always to have this great socialist state. He just embraces constitutionalism to avoid bloodshed. Is that a good way of thinking about Nehru’s relationship with constitutionalism?
SINGH: I disagree. I would frame it slightly differently. I don’t think he’s a reluctant constitutionalist because he very much believes in the constitution. At no point, even though it’s easy enough for him to do so, does he say, “Well, I look at sovereignty in myself,” or, “I look at sovereignty beyond the constitutional structures directly in the people. I’m the centurion, and here I am.” He never says that. One could argue that he never has the need to say that because, generally, he gets what he wants within the constitutional framework. There is still something to be said on that score.
On the other hand, yes, he definitely sees the constitution as a vehicle for the socialist project. He never hides that. Even in the Constituent Assembly, he always says that this constitution is there because we have to feed the starving millions and clothe the naked masses and so on and so forth. Again, I go back to “Recovering Liberties,” where Chris Bayly describes Nehru as a communitarian liberal. And very much I think that’s quite a fitting description.
There’s a hierarchy of threads in the Indian Constitution. Granville Austin used to refer to it as this seamless web with these three strands of the social revolution, the unity and integrity of nation and individual rights and so on. He thought of it as a seamless web where you couldn’t press down on one strand too hard. But I would argue actually there is a strand which is pressed hard, that there is a hierarchy of strands. For Nehru, that sort of the social revolutionary strand was very much something that threaded through the constitution.
You see it both in the argument in the First Amendment, where he bases most of his argument on the fact that there are these Directive Principles which his government is bound to obey. And there’s the greater socialist project for which the Congress [Party] has been agitating for the last 20 years. I think that’s a more productive way of looking at it, and thinking of him in terms of this communitarian liberal as Bayly describes him and as he undoubtedly was.
HUSSAIN: Maybe just to add what Tripurdaman just said, one can’t emphasize enough that for somebody in Nehru’s position and a leader of a postcolonial country, the other men that we have in power in the mid-20th century who are leading the nations—all or most of them outright abandon the constitutional project altogether. They toss the constitution in the bin and they say, “We’re going to go full-on authoritarianism now,” regardless of African countries or Southeast Asian countries. It’s the go-to pattern that we see in the mid-20th century.
Nehru really breaks that in the sense that he stays within the framework of the constitution, changes it many times and may not always like what’s written there and may interpret it in his own ways. But he could have gone much further in moving away from the constitution, which he actively doesn’t do. I wouldn’t say that he’s reluctant, but he’s a constitutionalist in many ways.
SINGH: Actually, he’s fastidious. This is another thing that someone like Gopal notes, is that he is very fastidious about parliamentary procedure and making sure that everything goes through the committees that it’s supposed to, that cabinet meets as it’s supposed to, even though it’s never known whether the cabinet is really going to stand up and defy him. But everything is done in a very proper, fastidious manner. He sticks to procedure even though he could have short-circuited it quite easily.
Now, again, of course you can argue that he was getting what he wants, so the need to short-circuit procedure never arises. I think there is a lot of force in that argument as well, but it is a big tick as a favor that he never feels the need to short-circuit any procedure of democracy either.
HUSSAIN: It’s something we also see when he is debating Jinnah, is that—whereas we generally consider Jinnah to be this cold-blooded lawyer who’s trying to score a legal point in these debates—it’s really Nehru that is consistently reminding him that, what is it that we are discussing? Let’s create a systematic list with things that we can tick off, et cetera.
He’s thinking very much like somebody who’s trained primarily within political party structures, and that’s really the case because very much this political awakening happens within the Congress Party. That is what he does. Right from the beginning, from a very young age, he begins his political mission within party structures. Whereas Jinnah is really the person who thinks beyond the party structure.
RAJAGOPALAN: There’s no question that Nehru is a democrat in a way that virtually none of the other postcolonial leaders are. He is very clearly against a dictatorship. He very much believes in the voting franchise and the project of democracy.
When it comes to the constitution, if we think of the constitution as a set of principles and a roadmap, then I think Nehru is certainly a constitutionalist. If we think about a constitution more in the American sense of the term, which is constraints, very seriously tying the hands of actors within the state machinery, then that case starts weakening. Because at any point in time when the constitution tries to constrain the actions of the union government or any of the actors in the state government, immediately it becomes a question of, “Oh, we need to relax these constraints.” And then starts the move to keep amending the constitution.
In one sense, I agree with you that amending the constitution seems like a far better project in hindsight than just abandoning it wholesale, which is what happened in many other South Asian and African countries. I would not necessarily still couch Nehru as a constitutionalist because when push came to shove, he always picked the immediate politically expedient project over the larger constitutional principle, whether it’s property rights or free speech.
These are not trivial matters. That starts, I think in some sense, making me really rethink my view of Nehru as a great constitutionalist. Now, in hindsight, compared to many others, I guess you’re right, the situation he inherited is quite different.
SINGH: True, true, true. One has to remember that the Indian Constitution is already executive-heavy. There was already large consensus that actually there has to be some sort of executive despotism, almost. Look at something like the power that is granted to the Indian president, which is the Indian government to issue ordinances. Now, this is a very strange setting where it’s probably the only democratic constitution in the world which gives law-making powers to the executive in the presence of lawful legislation without the need for any sort of emergency. It’s a device that’s used routinely.
I think while Nehru was keen on this, I don’t think he was also the only one who was keen on this. There was quite bipartisan support within—you had outliers like Mukherjee et cetera. There’s quite bipartisan support for this executive despotism within the Indian establishment. That’s one.
The Constitution as Pedagogical Project
SINGH: The second, of course, is that I do agree that there is a path dependency here. Because ultimately, the Westminster system very much relies on convention and precedent because there’s only so much that can be written. If you were to buy into the arguments made by someone like Madhav Khosla, which is that you had such great codification because they thought there was no experience of democracy, and so they had to really codify things in detail—the thing is, even despite all of that codification, it’s still dependent on precedent and convention.
Lacking that convention, I think Nehru fails to really appreciate or think through the consequences of his actions and that everything he does isn’t just done simply. It’s not just something in response to the events that he’s facing, but it’s going to become a precedent. He’s establishing instant precedents, instant conventions that are then going to hold good going forward. At least that’s the sense that I got reading the debates around First Amendment, is that he can’t seem to wrap his head around it, whether it’s intentional or whether it’s unintentional and he just doesn’t get it.
RAJAGOPALAN: There’s another aspect in Madhav’s book where he talks about the Indian founding moment almost as a pedagogical project. This is norm-setting, and we’re really teaching the not-democratic, unread masses who are going to get universal franchise overnight how to be a constitutional republic.
SINGH: It’s not just a pedagogical project, right?
SINGH: He also makes the argument that it’s a pedagogical project, but he makes a quite almost anthropological argument, the kind that Warren Hastings made when talking about the Mughal constitution. Warren Hastings thought you could discover the Mughal constitution through looking at how people were practicing politics. In this case, people were really going to learn constitutionalism through the practice. They were going to educate themselves by doing. The reason that I would push back against it is that that is also equally applicable to the rulers, right?
RAJAGOPALAN: Yes. Exactly.
SINGH: It’s not just something applicable to the masses, it’s also applicable to the rulers. If the rulers are learning by doing, then what exactly are they doing?
RAJAGOPALAN: Maybe I’ve steeped too much in public choice economics to think any other way. It seems like before we had to win elections and govern, we were doing the pedagogical project and all this norm-setting. Then the moment we actually have to govern and win elections and so on, we don’t care about norm-setting much anymore.
We’re just going to throw this out of the window. We’re going to make some politically expedient moves, not worry too much, as you said, Tripurdaman, about what it does for the future down the pipeline, what kind of precedent it sets, both within the party within parliament, but also in the entanglement between parliament and judiciary and so on.
They may have thought they were doing a pedagogical project, but I think it didn’t quite turn out as that by their actions almost immediately. Within 18, 20 months of the constitution being written, it very quickly switches to a political project—one of governing, and one of interests, really.
Role of the Judiciary
RAJAGOPALAN: Another thing that’s part of this constitution project is the independent judiciary. Of course, both Pakistan and India come from a British parliamentary tradition where there’s parliamentary sovereignty. But in India, there’s a break in that tradition because there’s independent judicial review right from the beginning. I think in Pakistan, with the 1973 constitution and the 18th and 19th Amendments and so on, you have this independent judicial review coming in.
Now, both of you have written about the entanglement with the judiciary in both countries. Tripurdaman, for you it’s in the First Amendment book. There’s literally a conversation happening between the legislature and the judiciary, which is getting resolved through an amendment in parliament. Adeel, you’ve written about this more recently in terms of the kinds of moves that the Pakistani Supreme Court’s been making against the military regime or different kinds of dictatorships and so on.
My broader question is, given the tradition that both these courts are coming from, how is it that both of them turned out to be these activist, interventionist supreme courts that they donned, though at different points in time? In the Indian court it comes post-Emergency, in the Pakistani court much more recently. But how is it that something that’s flowing from this very traditional British system goes rogue at some point—with good and bad consequences, depending on which year we’re talking about?
HUSSAIN: There’s a whole set of reasons why it really takes place. But I do think it boils down to the fact that very soon after the national project kickoff in both India and Pakistan, what happens is that many of the institutions that people look toward—be it parliament, be it the executive—gravely misuse specific powers that are given to them. And that the only institution that people consider to have a specific continuation from the colonial period and a reputation that is still intact are the courts.
The courts do take more risks because they believe and it very much shows that the public is supporting their specific rulings. And they’re looking toward the supreme court in order to find a direction. Both in the key moments of Pakistan, when state of emergencies are declared or governments are being set aside by the president in its early days, it is always the courts that people look toward in order to see if everything that took place was done in a specific legal manner. I do think that is the key reason as to why courts emerged.
But their reputation is also more or less tainted now in both of the countries. In India more recently, with the executive muscling in and, well, for the lack of any better framing, trying to bring cases in front of the court that are of a very specific political nature and that they want to see decided in a very specific manner. In this way, I do believe that both of the courts have lost some of that inherited reputation.
SINGH: I completely agree with Adeel there. I don’t think there’s much that I would add to that. Again, as you mentioned, the First Amendment, I think, very quickly, in India, the tension between the legislation and the judiciary is kicked off. Yes, both countries have an inheritance of the British idea of parliamentary sovereignty, but crucially, unlike Britain, India has a written constitution. That constitution automatically limits what parliament can or cannot do.
Of course, that tension itself is not really resolved until the basic structure doctrine comes into place in the ’70s because until then, sometimes the court rules this way and sometimes the court rules that way. Sometimes they let them legislate on whatever they want. Sometimes they push back and say, “Well, no legislation that circumscribes fundamental rights is possible.” That’s the famous I.C. Golak Nath case.
I think in India, there’s been the creative tension, but I wouldn’t really say that that’s been with the legislature. We frame it in the sense that it’s with the legislature. But actually, the legislature is the one that has a really, really poor record in India. It starts right at the outset, then progressively goes downhill to such an extent where now I would find it hard to even honestly say that the legislature has any independent presence as the third pillar of the democratic setup.
RAJAGOPALAN: Absolutely. I agree with you, especially after the 52nd Amendment. The moment you get this anti-defection kicking in, I feel like the legislature is basically where the drama unfolds. But all the debates have already happened in the backroom somewhere, if any. All the deals have been made in the backroom somewhere, and now we’re just going to put the show on for the kids who are watching television.
SINGH: An inordinate amount of power is handed over, A, to party bosses.
SINGH: And, B, to a figure like the speaker, who has been granted the quasi-judicial authority but without any checks and balances because the speaker is not really answerable to anyone for his decisions. Of course, you can take it to court, et cetera.
Again, as I go back to the constitution and to the point about executive authority, that the executive has already been placed constitutionally in the driver’s seat of the legislature. I think it’s good that, when we say that there’s a tension between the legislature and the judiciary, to keep in mind that the legislature very rarely has had any independent functional ability in the Indian context.
RAJAGOPALAN: Absolutely. One, it’s the executive all the way, and as you said, instead of even providing a weak check—parliamentary democracies already have a weaker version of separation of powers than nonparliamentary democracies. But in this, forget the fact that it needs to provide a check; it’s almost as if the legislature is in service of the executive, right?
The job seems to be, “Oh, we need to make sure that we are in the running to be chosen to occupy positions of the executive”—which is also ever increasing and has very little to do with holding the executive accountable. I guess because there’s no benefit from doing so anymore. I think that breakdown has been probably the most unfortunate and the least intended when we think of the constitutional framers in one sense.
Courts vs. Prime Ministers
RAJAGOPALAN: Coming back to the judiciary, both the courts have had an interesting moment, both India and Pakistan, in their battle with the prime minister, right? In the case of the Indian courts, of course, this was the famous Indira Gandhi vs Raj Narain case. Indira Gandhi’s election, of course, is voided because of corrupt election processes or for using “official machinery,” as they call it. On a corruption charge, her election is thrown out.
In the case of the Pakistani Constitution, the famous, almost lifelong impeachment of Nawaz Sharif. This is post-Panama corruption charges. Now, if I’m not wrong, I believe he can never hold public office for the rest of his life.
HUSSAIN: Yes, the supreme court ruled that he was not sadiq, which means that he wasn’t honorable enough in order to hold the highest office in the land.
RAJAGOPALAN: One of the things I find interesting is the very different reactions to both these rulings. In India it’s almost seen as this very—one, the consequence of the ruling is the Indian Emergency, which is this horrible break from democratic and constitutional practices, for the first and hopefully the last time in India. But in the Pakistani context, it’s almost like the judiciary gained in stature because of it, right? It comes into its own in a new way in modern-day Pakistan because it gets into this battle with the prime minister and impeaches him.
What is the reason for these two different reactions? Is it just that these are different times, they’re 50 years apart? That could possibly be one. Or is it because Indira Gandhi’s corruption in some sense is quite different than Nawaz Sharif’s corruption? Or Indira Gandhi was just more popular and the courts at that time weren’t populist, but the move against Nawaz Sharif was very, very popular and giving voice to people’s anger against corruption? What is going on with these cases, and why such dramatically different responses to the court?
HUSSAIN: There’s a couple of things that one really needs to bring into this conversation. The first one is the history of the Pakistani Supreme Court. The Pakistani Supreme Court has had a very different history from the Indian Supreme Court. We spoke earlier about the pedagogical and the political performative elements that constitute the postcolonial subject.
If we start from that imagining, the few high court (and, later on, supreme court) justices, earlier the justices of the federal court, were the ones that the British had handpicked in order to allow them a great amount of constitutional power that endowed them with a specific position to perform political action, or legal and political action that wasn’t given to most of the population before the foundational moment that took place with the republic. Here we have a group of people that is very much English-speaking, Anglophile. And culturally, many of them are trained in England. If not, they’ve done the equivalent training at Indian law schools.
In Pakistan what happens rather quickly is that through a succession of military leaderships, the legal system creates a parallel within it. We see the emergence of Sharia law as becoming more and more dominant, and we see a specific Shariatic jurisprudence and jurisdictional system that is implemented with Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s. The very old imaginings that people came to the courts are no longer really holding true. With the specific rulings that we saw in the 1950s in Pakistan, the trust in the court was already severely damaged.
People are not really looking to the court in the same manner as they still continue to do in India in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, where we have a string of rulings that, in fact, uphold the very principles that people do hold dear, and where there is a turn toward the constitutional courts. There’s multiple books on it, of why many common people turn toward the court and constantly keep petitioning them. Because they see it as a continuation of the colonial system where the courts were a functioning institution. In Pakistan, that functioning institution is broken repeatedly.
When we come to the Nawaz Sharif era, it’s really whenever the supreme court taps into a public opinion in such a way that there’s a great amount of support, then its rulings are seen as amazing and celebrated. If it does something that displeases the public at large, then it is seen as the political body that is making decisions because it’s been pressurized.
I think we saw that in a really good way in a more recent decision, where the Pakistani Supreme Court ruled the no-confidence motion of Imran Khan, who was then prime minister—at least a couple of months ago he still was. Then we saw this outpouring in the public in support of Imran Khan where they said that, “Oh, the supreme court shouldn’t have ruled in that way, and it did so only because of political pressures.” I do think that there’s a great amount of that.
RAJAGOPALAN: It seems like at the end of the day, even though that’s the unelected branch of government, the populism that basically permeates the rest of the democratic institutions—it’s very hard to get away from that or protected from that in any kind of judiciary, especially in South Asia. That seems to be the threat that keeps coming up in all the different South Asian judicial projects.
Is Postcolonial Constitutionalism Doomed From the Start?
RAJAGOPALAN: I want to ask a question more broadly about postcolonial politics. Is there a fundamental problem with the way all the postcolonial countries were born or their founding projects were framed, in the sense that most of them were born from a homegrown nationalist movement?
And the people who are involved in the nation-building project necessarily need to have enormous powers given to the state so that the nation-building project can succeed. Whereas constitutionalism requires that the powers of the state are dramatically rolled back. Is this the curse of the postcolonial constitutional project, that the nature of the founding in itself weakens the possibility of constitutionalism from the very beginning, and then it’s just downhill from there?
SINGH: I don’t think so. I think there is—if you, again, look at the moment of the founding of the Indian republic. Look at the speeches that India’s founding leaders give, look at what comes out in the press, look at what everyone is saying. Everyone is framing it as a charter of liberty, as a charter of republican freedom. Even those who believe otherwise—let’s look at Nehru as an example—frame it in those terms for public consumption.
In a sense, they’re also almost forced to frame it in those terms for public consumption because people are not going to be very happy if you go and say, “Well, now we’ve designed this constitution, and we’ve taken all the power that the British gave, but we’ll use it for good.” No one actually goes and says that. It’s consistently framed as a thing which—to my mind, that is because they believe that there’s demand for this. They believe that it’s going to play well to the gallery.
And to the gallery, they’re not just looking at their former colonial overlords to say, “Well, we can do it as well as you.” But there’s also genuine public demand and genuine public sympathy with the constitutional project. Now, there’s no way of saying how much or whether this was just a manufactured elite consensus, elite sympathy, which was visible in the English-speaking press and legal circles and so on and so forth. To me, it is telling that there is this wave of public opinion.
I don’t think there’s anything inevitable about postcolonial societies turning out this way. Again, I think of something that Sunil Khilnani wrote in his book “The Idea of India,” where he described India’s Constitution as an embarrassing monument just there because even though everything is just there, people aren’t really taking care of it or following it. I think that’s very much down to the way democracy has turned out in postcolonial societies.
There’s the pressures, of course, of democratic mobilization. In a sense, again, I’ll go back to Madhav Khosla because he mentions this in his book. I think he’s very right, that there are very few identities or very few axes along which you can have the public mobilization. In South Asia it tends to be along the lines of religion or caste, or language or these sorts of issues. There is very little choice-based or issue-based political mobilization for all sorts of reasons. I think that is what really harms pure constitutionalism, if you might call it that.
There’s also another way of looking at it. I once alluded to it briefly in a newspaper article, which is to think of this as a more indigenous version of constitutionalism. To say that one of the things that happened when India’s Constitution came into force was, many people criticized it as a Western innovation which we were just wholesale transferring to a different context. Actually, it’s not.
Many of the points that we already run through, whether it’s the overbearing powers given to the executive, whether it’s ordinance, whether it’s the executive deciding when parliament is to be summoned and when it’s to be dismissed or paroled and so on and so forth, these are indigenous elements. They’re not really found in Westminster systems.
These are indigenous elements that we’ve incorporated to ground the constitution in our context. It is possible to make the claim that this is, just as we have Indian secularism, perhaps we have Indian constitutionalism, and it’s not what we imagine constitutionalism to really be.
RAJAGOPALAN: I think that’s a very helpful way of looking at it. The South Asian move, so to speak, comes in. Earlier you used the word liberty, which is central. I think the difference is that the South Asian project was liberty from the colonial masters and not necessarily liberty from the state, right? If it’s the colonial state, then there is this big fight for liberty. If it’s not the colonial state, then liberty becomes sidelined for other, more important things, such as whether it’s an identity question or whether it’s a state-building exercise or something else.
I think there’s a hierarchy there somewhere. Whether it’s intentional or not, I don’t know. This doesn’t happen in the postcolonial states that got dominion status for a long time and then became independent, or never became independent from dominion status, depending on which part of the world we’re talking about. There, you don’t need to make this move of liberty against the colonial state and then liberty against your own state. There, you’re just tying the hands of the state through this contract, so to speak, with the crown.
I find that part very uniquely South Asian and quite interesting, in a way, trying to say that we have to be self-governing, purna swaraj [complete independence]. In some sense, did it weaken the idea of these democratic checks and balances because we only need to impose them on the foreigners, right? [chuckles] We never quite need to impose them on ourselves.
HUSSAIN: One of the things that we may want to keep in mind is that there’s also a profound transformation in the justification through which political power can articulate itself from the colonial to the postcolonial moment. That is the pedagogical element, that the population needs to be trained before it’s ready to govern. This capturing of an entire population within the waiting room of history is really no longer an argument that is made after 1947.
Apart from the entire discussion on liberty, where you quite rightly point out that it is something that is consistently articulated against the colonial regime, but then no longer against people who do it in a state context, it’s the justification element that breaks away. That changes the entirety of the conceptual paradigm through which people ask for liberty. I do think, with that change, there’s also a crucial shift that people do see themselves as political activists. The reason that they no longer push for it is because they say now it is really us who are sitting in the driver’s seat.
SINGH: Completely. Just a quick butting in. I think that is what makes India’s founding moment so transformational, is that no one makes a claim—of course, as the claim used to be made—that these people are going to be taught how to govern themselves, and then we’ll give government to them, is the idea. And that’s why the granting of the franchise is such a big thing, is because you just see they’re going to figure it out. By doing they’ll learn. That’s what gives Madhav Khosla’s argument such force. But that’s also what makes the actions of the leaders quite jarring in that there is an inherent tension that they’re unable to resolve.
Debates, Then and Now
RAJAGOPALAN: Absolutely. I think that’s very well couched. Tripurdaman, you’ve read lots of debates for First Amendment and so on, as have I. Up to about even the end of the Emergency, I find the quality of [parliamentary] debates to be quite good. This is not the written word. It’s the spoken word. This is still before television, but you have newspapers carefully covering this stuff.
When I look at parliamentary debates today—I’m talking about something as important as the NJAC Amendment, which is changing the way we select our judiciary—it’s just a couple of pages long. The First Amendment debates, they run into hundreds of pages, right? Now, there’s hardly anything of meaning being said. The whole thing is a little bit procedural. It doesn’t feel like a genuine exchange of ideas.
I’m not being posh and elitist. It’s not that you had to write letters and handwritten while sitting in jail, relying on your memory to quote Bertrand Russell or whoever Nehru quotes. It’s more that people seem to be listening to more television and radio and Twitter and everything else than ever before.
But is the exchange happening on big principles at all? Or do we have any evidence of that? Are there great speeches being given by Modi and his opposition in regional languages that I just haven’t found on YouTube or something like that? Where is this discourse taking place?
SINGH: I’ll just start right from the beginning. I go back to my old supervisor Chris Bayly and his argument that India was not a literate society, but it was very much “literacy-aware society,” as he used to say. Ideas always had a life of their own in India, and there was always transmission of these ideas, and it wasn’t necessarily through the written word. I don’t think we should privilege the written word so much given, of course, the oral heritage of our culture as well.
The second is that I think one of the reasons why we feel this way is, of course, that these people had a lot of time on their hands when they were doing this. They were freed from the demands of government. Government itself was a lot less complex. There was a lot less scrutiny, so it was quite easy for you to get away with a lot of stuff. Plus, we also forget that there was a history that all of these people had of working alongside each other for a long period of time. Whether it was as colleagues, whether it was even Nehru and Jinnah who were competitors in a way.
There was memory of working together or working alongside each other, even for differing objectives in the national movement or in the anti-colonial mainstream. This was the political mainstream of anti-colonial politics, which doesn’t exist anymore. There’s no real memory current-day politicians have of working alongside each other, no real common objective that has really bound them together over a long period of time and so on and so forth. I think that’s, again, a very important reason.
The third, of course, is as I mentioned, that there is this discourse happening now. Whether you assume that Twitter threads constitute a form of political discourse or not, or whether Facebook posts constitute a form of political discourse or not, I don’t know. I can’t really say, but even if you look at the history of Indian political thought, until a decade—10, 20 years ago—nobody really thought there was any Indian political thought. Nobody thought of Nehru, Patel and Mukherjee as thinkers. There are plenty of people who still don’t see them as thinkers.
There is a dividing line between a thinker and a practitioner. India never really had a tradition of the theorization of thinkers writing political treatises or theorizing what’s going on. It was very much these thinker-politicians who were writing and practicing. A lot of their writing was in engagement with each other. Hardly anyone starting ab initio pens a treatise of political theory. There are no Thomas Jeffersons and James Madisons here.
RAJAGOPALAN: Ambedkar, maybe.
SINGH: Ambedkar, maybe, but actually, I would say only Gandhi. Gandhi’s, also, political treatise—if you look at “Hind Swaraj,” well, it’s interesting, to say the least. Twenty years ago, academics would have laughed at you to say, “Well, here’s India’s political theory, and I’m going to look at Nehru or Patel.” Today, we do, and we think of them as thinkers. Perhaps there is someone 20 years down the line or 30 years down the line, 50 years down the line, will look back at Twitter threads, et cetera, and deduce that this is how political discourse is conducted.
Also, just a quick point around that argument is that it’s the same with government records, right? How are historians going to write history now that a lot of communication is happening on WhatsApp and on these encrypted networks, et cetera, and communication isn’t necessarily through telegrams or through letters? I don’t know. Maybe WhatsApp chats or maybe even TikTok, as I remember one of Adeel’s former colleagues used to look at, is a form of political communication and is a form of political discourse that people better than us or better-equipped to judge than us will make sense of that.
RAJAGOPALAN: Yes. Actually, more generally, I think record keeping has become quite different. Of course, there are so many different kinds of media on which one must keep records. I was doing some research at the national archives a few years ago, and they were talking, lamenting how most parliamentarians don’t actually give their records or cabinet papers, all their personal files to the archives anymore. He said the last person who kept meticulous records through most of his career and handed them over was Somnath Chatterjee, I think, or that was happening at that time, if I remember. He says virtually no one else does that anymore.
We wouldn’t have much discourse on the Indian Constitution if we didn’t have Rajendra Prasad papers, right? The R.P. papers are the foundational primary material for—I think there is some of that, a question of, how are we keeping records and so on? I think it’s also a question of, is there any attempt to build a coalition? At the time of the nationalist movement, no matter how far apart people are in their political view or religious view or ideological view, you are still trying to build this huge coalition because the colonial government is this overwhelming global imperial power. You need all hands on deck.
You need to find all the different strands on which people can agree so that they can maybe band together, or at least you need to know where people stand. We don’t need that kind of coalition to be built around anything anymore, right? There’s a very clear electoral math of 535 parliamentary seats, or whichever legislature we’re talking about. Then math turns out the way it needs to turn out, but the intellectual coalition is almost irrelevant within politics. It may have to be built outside politics, which is a separate question.
They’ve done this with the Hindutva project and the Gita Press project and things, trying to build this big cultural or intellectual coalition outside of politics. I feel like that might be another reason we are simply not going to get debates of this sort from current-day politicians. Why would they need to engage with each other in a meaningful way and try to find common ground? What’s there in it for them?
SINGH: You’re right. You’re absolutely right. There isn’t that much. Equally, I’d also step back a bit. There was engagement across the political spectrum, but partly, it was also driven by the fact that the political, constitutional and legal boundaries were still a bit fuzzy. No one knew what form the future India would take. Look at something like the 1930s when the Round Table Conferences happen. There’s the idea of the federation. Indian princes are forced to negotiate with British Indian politicians. Ambedkar is forced to negotiate with Gandhi.
There wasn’t a preexisting structure that could really contain these multitudes, so no one could say, “Well this is the structure and within which we have to function.” There was a need to take everybody’s views on board because you never knew what shape the country was going to take. Now that there are a lot of things that are settled and there’s been experience of how electoral politics plays out, it’s quite right, there is no real need for that sort of engagement.
Also, equally, when that sort of need arises, Indian politicians have proven themselves quite adept at being able to engage with each other at building coalitions, at running coalitions, at keeping them going. NDA-1 and UPA-1 are both prime examples, or if you would go further back in time, the V.P. Singh government supported by the BJP and by the communist parties.
They have proven quite adept at coalition building in a way that I would argue someone like Nehru didn’t. Those who disagreed with Nehru or didn’t see eye to eye with him—whether it was Ambedkar, whether it was Mukherjee, whether it was John Matthai and so on, everybody—within two, three years, by the end of 1950 really, they’re all out. Who is more adept at political engagement? I don’t know.
RAJAGOPALAN: We’ll find out, I guess, in the future.
HUSSAIN: I was just thinking when we were talking about how these debates of the early 20th century create or have a specific intellectual heft that we see lacking. I was thinking about the first debate that Iqbal has with Nehru. It’s a debate that is very much rooted in what was then known as the “gutter press of the Punjab.”
The entire blasphemy issue that has become the key question of Pakistan constitutional politics, and of the precursors of the Indian Constitution, was very much something that people said should not be read—the Arya Samaj, Ahmadiyya controversies, the polemic, et cetera. Constitutionalism and politics unfold in very strange ways. That’s something that I would just like to say at the end. We never know.
SINGH: That’s even the First Amendment, where actually a lot of pages of the debate are devoted to Nehru saying there are these one-penny, two-penny sheets that come out every week and write whatever they want, and they’re full of slander and gossip and fake news. Actually, this would be an interesting paper for someone to write as to how Indian constitutionalism and political thought has been influenced by the gutter press.
RAJAGOPALAN: You’re right.
HUSSAIN: To shamelessly plug my next book, which is “Revenge, Politics and Blasphemy,” which tries to map the constitutional debate around blasphemy in those very early debates of the late 19th century.
RAJAGOPALAN: I’d love to read that. Please, do send me an early copy if you can.
HUSSAIN: I will.
RAJAGOPALAN: Speaking of exchanges and debates, I wanted to learn a little bit about your writing process, both individually and jointly. You both have written, of course, journal articles, books separately, and you both write in the popular press. What is your individual way of writing?
SINGH: I’d start with the book that we wrote jointly. I think it was an interesting experience for both of us. The way we managed is that there are certain things that are much closer to our work. Patel and Mukherjee is, of course, something that I’ve looked at a lot more closely. And Jinnah and Iqbal are two figures that Adeel has looked at a lot more closely. We found it easier to write drafts of individual chapters and then send it to the other person for additions, comments, et cetera.
I think that way it panned out quite well, in that we found it quite easy to work that way. Of course, it helps that we have a similar style of writing, we agree on the broad arguments that dominated in the historiography of that period and we’ve been friends for a long time. It helps to have that relationship because otherwise, I feel like it could quite easily be very difficult to write something with someone else.
RAJAGOPALAN: You started from the same Bayly tradition, right? Both of you come from that, not even that school but that very particular tradition of engaging with South Asian politics.
SINGH: Yes. Also, we were both at Cambridge, so we’ve known each other since we started our Ph.D.s. That’s helped. For my own individual self, I think I have a very haphazard style of writing. I’m pretty nocturnal when I write. I find the popular venue as the hardest to write for. Really, if someone says, “Can you write an 800-word piece on this newspaper?” I think that’s what I find the hardest to write out of all of the formats that we have to use. Otherwise, no, I actually quite enjoy the process of writing. And I think there’s a certain thrill to seeing things come together that writing really gives me.
HUSSAIN: Unlike Tripurdaman, for me, it’s a very painful process. Therefore, I try to do it in short bursts. I could never write every day, even though that’s the recommendation I’m giving to my students. If you’re listening to this, please continue writing every day, and submit your master dissertations on time. But in general, I would say for me, it’s very short bursts. But it’s also got to do with the very nature of the academy.
With the teaching, it becomes more difficult to sit down and focus on a different project when you’ve taught international law all day. I do feel that whenever I have time, I like to just focus on the writing and then just get as much done as I can in a one-week, two-week window.
RAJAGOPALAN: This is super helpful. I usually ask this question because we have lots of listeners who are students or graduate students or hoping to be graduate students. Anytime anyone like Tripurdaman says, “Oh, I quite enjoy writing,” I’m like, “Really? It’s excruciating.”
SINGH: I do, but I also, again, don’t write every day. I think for me, the most important bit is to remember who you’re writing for. That’s one of the things I always keep in mind, whatever I’m writing, is to think of the reader. Because ultimately, you want the reader to be able to read it, understand it, make sense of it and hopefully take some pleasure in it.
That’s why I really dislike writing that’s cryptic, writing which you have to put in a lot of effort into deciphering. Because I do a lot of work, and the last thing I want to do when I pick up a book is to put an extra effort into making sense of it. If anybody is listening, and if anyone cares, then that’s the recommendation that I always give.
RAJAGOPALAN: That’s an excellent recommendation. I must say the book is very well-written. I very much enjoyed reading it. Thank you so much for doing this. This was such a pleasure.
HUSSAIN: Thank you so much, Shruti.
SINGH: Thank you for inviting us, Shruti. It was great fun.
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