‘Indian exceptionalism’, the belief that India is sui generis, and can be under- stood only in its own special terms, has long existed in western social science, and especially when considering civil society. A related question is whether the Indian people can be said to have had the institutional base upon which modern states and societies can be formed; that is, whether modern Indians are capable of progressing towards the secular, pluralistic and modern society that supposedly characterizes the ‘First World’, or whether theirs is a separate destiny, shared with other ‘Third World’ peoples, of distorted particularisms and intolerance. Since the explosion at Ayodhya in December 1992, doubts will surely have resurfaced on this point.
Ayodhya and the extension of its violence into Bombay and elsewhere was the clearest sign that we have had about the present strength of forces that will determine whether secularism or sustained communal violence prevails in India. Doubts were inevitably raised about whether India, even with its post-independence history of free elections and democratic institutions and its advanced scientific and industrial institutions, had escaped its legacy of intercommunity competition, which had already produced partitions of the subcontinent. Is India to be judged by the general terms of those purportedly Enlightenment values of modernity or according to its new solipsisms? Will Indian violence in the name of communities and their alleged pasts of glory and shame continue to justify the exclusion of India as a suitable object for modernity?
Here I intend to sketch the relationship between communities and states over the millennia for which we possess any evidence, no matter how specula- tive, to attempt to put these questions into perspective. During these millennia local and small societies of considerable complexity constituted ‘civil society’
before there were formal states; later they coexisted with states for over a mil- lennium, until subordinated by the twin influences of the modern state and capitalism. During this latest period, communities in India have been trans- muted from functioning societies cohabiting particular places into metaphors, synecdochic emblems, usually of a religious sort and at the service of political groupings and their interests. If one of the consequences of this reduction of communities from genuine and comprehensive social institutions to mere signs is the violence waged by majority Hindus against minority Muslims and dalits (oppressed castes), can the transformation be understood, if not reversed? And what are the intellectual implications in comparative social scientific and in political terms, if these are applied?
The notion of ‘community’ occupied an important place in the Enlighten- ment project of seventeenth-century Europeans upon which the moderniza- tion theories of ‘normal’ social science are based. ‘Natural rights’, it was thought, stemmed from ‘natural communities’ and protected the autonomy of towns, social estates and individuals from absolutist monarchs. This theory found its fullest expression in the writings of Locke and Montesquieu, who agreed about the connection of rights and communities, but configured the relationship between kings and their subjects differently. Locke posited that ‘natural communities’ existed prior to states, with whose rulers they engaged on a conditional contractual basis, while Montesquieu understood community and state to arise simultaneously, with a contractual relationship between them to limit the oppression of the state. Both of these formulations attribute first importance to subjective rights, and these rights are seen to lodge in the community.
From such formulations, it was but a short step to Hegel’s assertion that community rather than contract was the source of statehood and that the foundation of the state was ‘love’. Affective binding was thus at once the foundation of the family and the foundation of ‘civil society’, as ‘universal family’, itself. Hegel united the ideas of Locke and Montesquieu at the time that such radical understandings about civil society and the state as those of Thomas Paine, and a ‘public’ and ‘public opinion’, emerged in Europe capable of formulating and publicizing nationalist doctrines. At the same time, too, capitalism was laying a new foundation for both states and societies.
Non-European societies, of whatever antiquity and however much admired, were long thought to be largely outside these developments. As the subjects of oriental despots and later as colonized subjects, they were denied the rich medieval European tradition of rights as free citizens; as colonized subjects, they were even deprived of the benefits of capitalism while serving and even financing part of European capitalist development, in the manner that India helped to fund British industrial development for a century. Still, the notion of community continued to loom large within the entire post-Lockean narra- tive, and eventually it was accepted that ‘community’ and ‘state’ have as much conceptual validity for India as for Europe.
While there have been doubts about whether pre-modern Asians could be thought to possess ‘civil society’, there have been fewer doubts about the state: Asia has known states as general political formations as early as Europe, if not
earlier. But these were deemed to be states of another sort and were denied the developmental potential of pre-modern European states, in particular of the absolutist centralized monarchies of France, Spain and England. These kingdoms, as Perry Anderson observed, shattered the ‘parcelized’ sovereignty of medieval social formations and opened the way for the modern state: unified territorially, centralized administratively and possessed of all coercive means. The modern state was considered the state; all other political forms merely approached this universal type. Some peoples – notably Europeans – were destined to attain that sort of state in accordance with an evolutionary logic that cast other peoples – such as Indians – on to history’s wayside, to be subjugated to the rule of others.