August 15, 1947, deserved to be remembered, the African-American writer W.E.B. Du Bois argued, “as the greatest historical date” of modern history. It was the day India became independent from British rule, and Du Bois believed the event was of “greater significance” than even the establishment of democracy in Britain, the emancipation of slaves in the United States or the Russian Revolution. The time “when the white man, by reason of the color of his skin, can lord it over colored people” was finally drawing to a close.
It is barely remembered today that India’s freedom heralded the liberation, from Tuskegee to Jakarta, of a majority of the world’s population from the degradations of racist imperialism. India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, claimed that there had been nothing “more horrible” in human history than the days when millions of Africans “were carried away in galleys as slaves to America and elsewhere.” As he said in a resonant speech on Aug. 15, 1947, long ago India had made a “tryst with destiny,” and now, by opening up a broad horizon of human emancipation, “we shall redeem our pledge.”
But India, which turns 70 next week, seems to have missed its appointment with history. A country inaugurated by secular freedom fighters is presently ruled by religious-racial supremacists. More disturbing still than this mutation are the continuities between those early embodiments of postcolonial virtue and their apparent betrayers today.
Du Bois would have been heartbroken to read the joint statement that more than 40 African governments released in April, denouncing “xenophobic and racial” attacks on Africans in India and asking the United Nations Human Rights Council to investigate. The rise in hate crimes against Africans is part of a sinister trend that has accelerated since the Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi came to power in 2014.
Another of its bloodcurdling manifestations is the lynching of Muslims suspected of eating or storing beef. Others include assaults on couples who publicly display affection and threats of rape against women on social media by the Hindu supremacists’ troll army. Mob frenzy in India today is drummed up by jingoistic television anchors and vindicated, often on Twitter, by senior politicians, businessmen, army generals and Bollywood stars.
Hindu nationalists have also come together to justify India’s intensified military occupation of Muslim-majority Kashmir, as well as a nationwide hunt for enemies: an ever-shifting and growing category that includes writers, liberal intellectuals, filmmakers who work with Pakistani actors and ordinary citizens who don’t stand up when the national anthem is played in cinemas. The new world order — just, peaceful, equal — that India’s leaders promised at independence as they denounced their former Western masters’ violence, greed and hypocrisy is nowhere in sight.
Back in 1947, Du Bois had good reason to hope that India would offer a superior alternative to the West’s destructive modernity. His hero, Mohandas K. Gandhi, had lived on three continents by the time the first phase of globalization violently ended with World War I. Gandhi had intimately experienced how Western imperialists and capitalists blended economic inequalities with racial hierarchies, entrenching, as Du Bois wrote, “a new industrial slavery of black and brown and yellow workers in Africa and Asia.” Gandhi was determined not to let postcolonial India replicate the injustices built into modern civilization or, as he put it, “English rule without the Englishman.”
From that perspective, Gandhi may seem to have chosen his protégé unwisely: Nehru was the scion of a family of rich Brahmin Anglophiles. But Nehru received his own education in global inequities through people he met in international left-wing networks. On a wide range of international issues, the two men shared a rhetoric that expressed a preference for solidarity, compassion and dialogue over violence.
Gandhi claimed to “understand the longing of a Jew to return to Palestine,” but warned Zionists against doing so “under the shadow of the British gun.” As early as 1946, Nehru, then prime-minister-in-waiting, sacrificed India’s lucrative trade links with South Africa in protest against apartheid. In 1947, India voted at the United Nations against the partition of Palestine because, Nehru explained to Albert Einstein, the Zionists had “failed to win the good will of the Arabs.” Distrustful of American motives, Nehru spurned a potentially rewarding partnership with the United States during the Cold War.
But Indian leaders very seldom practiced domestically what they preached internationally. Though committed to parliamentary procedures, Nehru never let go of the British-created colonial state and its well-oiled machinery of repression. The brute power of the Indian police and army was used in 1948 to corral the princely state of Hyderabad into the Indian Union. Up to 40,000 Muslims were killed, and the episode remains the single-largest massacre in the history of independent India.
Nehru shared with Hindu nationalists a mystical faith in the essential continuity of India from ancient civilization to modern nation. Determined to hold on to Kashmir, for example, he abandoned his promise of organizing a referendum to decide the contested region’s political status. In 1953, he deposed a popular Kashmiri politician (and friend) and had him sent to prison, inaugurating a long reign of puppet leaders who continue to enrich themselves under the long shadow of the Indian gun.
As early as 1958, Nehru’s regime introduced the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, the forerunner of repressive legislation that today sanctions murder, torture and rape by Indian soldiers in central India and border provinces. It was under Nehru that Indian troops and paramilitaries were unleashed on indigenous peoples in India’s northeastern states in the 1950s and ’60s. It was Nehru who in 1961 made it a crime to question the territorial integrity of India, punishable with imprisonment.
Yet in the eyes of the world, India maintained its exceptional status for decades, as many promising postcolonial experiments with democracy degenerated into authoritarianism, if not military rule. The country’s democratic politics appeared stable. But they did so only because they were reduced to the rule of a single party, the Congress, which was itself dominated by a single family — Nehru’s. And far from being socialist or redistributionist, Nehru’s economic policies boosted India’s monopoly capitalists. His priorities were heavy industries and elite polytechnics, which precluded major investments in primary education, health and land reform.
India’s lynch mobs today represent the latest and most grisly expression of such cynical political ideologies. As the sheer brutishness of Mr. Modi’s populism becomes clear, the memory of the aristocratic Nehru becomes more sacred, especially among politicians and commentators from India’s English-speaking upper castes. But Mr. Modi has also turned that legacy of high-flown promises to his political advantage.
Nehru and his followers had articulated an influential ideology of Indian exceptionalism, claiming moral prestige and geopolitical significance for India’s uniquely massive and diverse democracy. Only many of those righteous notions also reeked of upper-caste sanctimony and class privilege. Mr. Modi has effectively mobilized those Indians who have long felt marginalized and humiliated by India’s self-serving Nehruvian elite into a large vote bank of ressentiment.
Virtuous talk of unity in diversity and secularism has been replaced by a barefaced Hindu nationalism: The tattered old masks, and the gloves, have come off. The state, colonized by an ideological movement, is emerging triumphant over society. With the media’s help, it is assuming extraordinary powers of control — telling people what they should eat at home and how they should behave in public, and whom to lynch.
Mr. Modi’s rule represents the most devastating, and perhaps final, defeat of India’s noble postcolonial ambition to create a moral world order. It turns out that the racist imperialism Du Bois despised can resurrect itself even among its former victims: There can be English rule without the Englishman. India’s claims to exceptionalism appear to have been as unfounded as America’s own.
And so one can, of course, mourn this Aug. 15 as marking the end of India’s tryst with destiny or, more accurately, the collapse of our exalted ideas about ourselves. But a sober reckoning with the deep malaise in India can be bracing, too. For it confirms that the world as we have known it, molded by the beneficiaries of both Western imperialism and anti-imperialist nationalism, is crumbling, and that in the East as well as the West, all of us are now called to fresh struggles for freedom, equality and dignity.
Pankaj Mishra’s most recent book is Age of Anger: A History of the Present.