What Naipaul Got Right, and Wrong, About India
While reading a shocking report about extrajudicial killings and torture by Indian security forces in Kashmir, I was reminded of V.S. Naipaul’s “India: A Million Mutinies Now,” arguably the most influential book about modern India.
More than two decades after the book was published, India is full of ominous signs of the breakdown of governance and the increasing recourse to violence by the Indian state as well as extremist groups. And so it was strange to read Naipaul’s optimistic take on an earlier phase of this turmoil: “Many of these movements of excess strengthened the Indian state, defining it as a source of law and civility and reasonableness.”
The special pleading here actually belies the prophetic cast of many of Naipaul’s observations, which have shaped much recent writing and thinking about the country, from Sunil Khilnani’s “The Idea of India” to Suketu Mehta’s “Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found.”
Naipaul traveled in the late 1980s to Mumbai, South India, communist-ruled Bengal, Lucknow, Delhi and Kashmir. His interlocutors came from a carefully chosen sample of Indians: poor Muslims, upper-caste Hindus, Sikhs, Kashmiri Muslims, Punjabis, Tamils, ex-communists and Dalits, formerly untouchable Hindus. Naipaul even sought out the producers and consumers of women’s magazines.
Out of these varied encounters, Naipaul drew a simple yet irrefutable thesis about India: “People everywhere have ideas of who they are and what they owe themselves.”
You could argue with Naipaul about whether India’s “civilization” had really been “wounded” by decayed Hindu rituals, barbaric Muslim invaders and a sterile Gandhism. Nevertheless, he seemed to have had brilliantly intuited that many long-suppressed Indians, galvanized by ideas of freedom and dignity, were now finally revolting against their wretched circumstances.
Intriguingly, such upbeat assessments of India’s latent energies reflected a 180-degree turn in Naipaul’s thinking about the land of his ancestors. This was the same writer who had skittishly charged in the early 1960s that “Indians defecate everywhere” -- and made this proclamation, equally hyperbolic, in the mid-1970s: “India needed a new code, but it had none. There were no rules; and India was discovering again that it was cruel and horribly violent.”
Cruising down the road to Damascus in 1990, Naipaul wasn’t deluded into thinking that there was anything nonviolent or benign about India’s million mutinies. In fact, they were “supported by 20 kinds of group excess, sectarian excess, religious excess, regional excess.” Nevertheless, the eruptions of rage had to be contrasted with what didn’t exist before in India: “a central will, a central intellect, a national idea.”
“What the mutinies were helping to define,” he wrote, “was the strength of the general intellectual life, and the wholeness and humanism of the values to which all Indians could appeal.” So, as Naipaul saw it, “the mutinies were not to be wished away. They were part of the beginning of a new way for millions, part of India’s growth, part of its restoration.”
It is worth asking today: Has a writer ever been more wrong and more right at the same time?
In retrospect, Naipaul had chosen in 1990 a perversely unpromising moment to bet on the Indian state’s ability to arbitrate -- and eventually defuse -- the million mutinies. Militant insurgencies in Punjab and Kashmir, the assassination of a prime minister, and pogroms against Muslims and Sikhs had made the 1980s the most violent decade in modern Indian history.
Two years after the publication of “A Million Mutinies Now,” the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party would demolish a medieval mosque in North India. Then, rising on a wave of anti-Muslim violence, it would assume power in Delhi in 1998 and immediately conduct nuclear tests.
Assaults on minorities, especially in Kashmir, would intensify, culminating in the mass murder, assisted by the local government, of more than 2,000 Muslims in the state of Gujarat in 2002. Economic globalization, while benefiting a small minority, would graft new inequalities of income and opportunity on to India’s older hierarchies of caste.
But Naipaul saw India, especially its Hindu majority, making another tryst with destiny. In his own version of the Hegelian-Marxian dialectic, conflict helped usher India into a higher stage of progress. It was a kind of national development that, to use Lenin’s words, “proceeds in spirals, not in a straight line; a development by leaps, catastrophes and revolutions.”
To be sure, Naipaul hadn’t relied on any grand teleology to hail the progress of India’s democratic revolution. He worked, as always, from the story he had constructed of his own life. Phrases such as “central will” and “national idea” always had a great emotional appeal for Naipaul, who grew up with a bewilderingly mixed identity in a politically insignificant country (Trinidad). He extrapolated from his own improbable success as a self-made writer from nowhere to evoke a future for India in which most of its citizens would, after some necessary struggle, find happiness.
Indeed, Naipaul was much taken with the American idea of happiness. As he said in a lecture at the Manhattan Institute in 1990: “So much is contained in it: the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement. It is an immense human idea.”
But, unlike most of his conservative audience that day, Naipaul did not see big government as obstructing the private pursuit of happiness. He partook rather of the assumption -- commonplace among Third World intellectuals -- that the state was the prime agent of the spirit of history, whose central intellect and will assist and protect its citizens as they seek material and intellectual fulfilment.
Though alert to the failures and disasters of postcolonial regimes in Africa, Naipaul strangely could not see -- the consequence, perhaps, of his excessive reliance on individual encounters and near-total indifference to political economy -- how the Indian state was rapidly losing its credibility and legitimacy in the 1970s and ’80s.
In “A Million Mutinies Now,” he completely missed how the central government had cynically encouraged, even helped create, the secessionist minority of Sikhs in Punjab, or how it had routinely rigged elections in Muslim-majority Kashmir, finally forcing its peaceable population to take up arms in the late ’80s.
As the ’90s progressed, Naipaul confused his cherished “national idea” and “central intellect” with irruptions of a xenophobic nationalism among a minority of middle-class and upper-caste Hindus. Not surprisingly, he hailed the BJP’s vandalizing of a mosque in 1992 as a great historical “awakening.”
It is not clear what he makes of the demoralizing spectacle today of the undermining of the Indian state’s central will by crony capitalism and allegations of gargantuan venality, and the replacement of the national idea by private fantasies of rapid self-enrichment.
In 1990, Naipaul was perfectly placed to describe the magnitude and vitality of India’s experiment with democracy, if not foresee the paradoxical result of its success: fragmentation into multiple competing political and economic interests, and incoherence and paralysis at the center.
Certainly, Naipaul’s early predictions about politicized and motivated Indians have been abundantly ratified. But, for all their literary power, his writings cannot lighten the task of those who struggle to decipher today -- in the larger postcolonial world as well as in India -- the million mutinies that continue to erupt in the great void of the national idea.
(Pankaj Mishra is the author of “From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia” and a Bloomberg View columnist, based in London and Mashobra, India. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer of this article: Pankaj Mishra at