K.S. Komireddi sets out to establish his secular credentials before he sets up his primary argument: which is that India’s secularism is in danger. In the prologue, we are introduced to the author as a young man who briefly attended a madrassah, where he made a Muslim friend, and the two celebrated the Hindu festival of Diwali together. In the coda, we peek at his bookshelf, where we find the well-thumbed works of a Muslim poet. These bookends establish Komireddi’s secular bona fides, for his name marks him as a Hindu. And yet at first Malevolent Republic seems to be an assault on everything we associate with secularism in India, including the Indian National Congress Party and India’s secular historians. It is a puzzle.
The first half of the book is a sprint through the history of India under successive governments run largely by the Indian National Congress party until 2014. This is history in the genre of the first-person shooter video game. Komireddi steadies his sights on each of India’s leaders just long enough to mow them down. Accordingly, these pages have all the subtlety of an AR-15: Indira Gandhi ‘eviscerated’ India; her coddled son, Sanjay, is likened to ‘his Korean compeer, Kim Jong-Il’; Rajiv Gandhi’s political philosophy was a ‘collage of banalities’; P.V. Narasimha Rao was a man of ‘unanticipated ruthlessness’, so unloved that after his poorly attended funeral ‘stray dogs tore at the remains of his partially cremated body’; Manmohan Singh, a ‘vampire who launched the fetish for privatisation’, was a ‘sub-continental Pinochet’.
What of the people of India, who during this period doubled in number to reach more than a billion? The population of the countryside were ‘stupefied, skeletal figures, surviving on watery gruel’, while urban India was a ‘theatre of hideous inequality’. Neither are India’s secular historians, schooled in the Congress era, spared. Komireddi accuses them of conjuring ‘fables’ of Hindu–Muslim comity in India’s pre-colonial past, thereby missing a chance to heal the wounds of communal chauvinism after Partition. Reaching the end of this section, one might just conclude that K.S. Komireddi is the V.S. Naipaul of his generation: the entire force of his not inconsiderable intellect seems to be aimed at deriding India in dazzling prose.
After pitilessly tearing through the leaders of the Indian National Congress for the first 100 pages, Komireddi slows down to stalk his real target: Narendra Modi, the leader of Congress’s rival, the Bharatiya Janata party. Here the prose is more measured. The author makes the case for Modi’s villainy in thematic chapters. Chapter 5 focuses on the development of a cult of personality around the leader, who took the helm in New Delhi in 2014. The next chapter chronicles the disastrous demonetisation scheme of 2016.
Komireddi then documents the violence perpetrated against Muslims and Dalits under the BJP, which, he argues, ‘is not a digression from [Modi’s] beliefs; it is an affirmation of them’. Chapter 8 covers Modi’s foreign policy, focusing on India’s neighbours, including Nepal, China and Pakistan. Next, we hear how Modi has intimidated and subverted India’s independent institutions, including the military, the Reserve Bank of India, universities, the Election Commission, the courts and the media. The final chapter concerns Modi’s ruinous approach to Kashmir, which has seen violence escalate in recent years. All of this information is arresting, essential, devastating.
The puzzle is this: if the real target is Modi, why expend so much bile on the Congress party? It is true that independent India’s secularism was never as pure as its secularists would like to believe. But the immoderate invective unleashed in the first section requires some explanation. Perhaps this half of the book was intended to serve the same purpose as those bookends: to establish the purity of Komireddi’s own secularism. For without the critique of the Congress party, Modi’s ruffians would certainly accuse him of being a Congress agent.
Does this also explain Komireddi’s attack on India’s secular historians? Rejecting their nuanced, layered and above all measured arguments about India’s medieval period, he quotes contemporary claims that the Muslim presence in India was characterised by ‘horrors’; and in doing so risks giving succour to Hindu nationalists such as Modi, who claim, speciously, indiscriminately, that the Muslim presence in India was characterised exclusively by communal strife.
But what have these secular historians found? They have recorded that in India’s pre-colonial past, Hindus and Muslims often celebrated festivals together, and they could appreciate one another’s poetry. They document exactly the everyday secularism that Komireddi claims for himself. He is not so different from them. So the hyperbolic criticism of the Congress and the frothing condemnation of India’s scholars is perhaps all just a rhetorical strategy directed at Modi’s admirers.
One must ask, then, is adopting the crude over-simplifications of Modi on some points the key to persuading his followers to return to more measured positions on others? Can intemperate cries of alarm return us to a more temperate age?
This review has been amended to remove an assertion of factual inaccuracies unsupported by the contents of the book. The review has also been amended to remove an unwarranted assertion that the author was "partial to the stories peddled by Hindu nationalists". We regret the errors and apologise to the author.
Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India
Author: K.S. Komireddi
Page count: 242