Chandigarh is Great
Because it has a thought embedded in its Foundations
To generate a System
To generate an Order
To show a Way
To enrich Life1


One of the oddest bits of information I picked up in Chandigarh, the capital of Haryana and Punjab, designed more or less from scratch by Le Corbusier in the early 1950s, was that none of its trees is from India. I was told that every tree in this modern garden city in northwest India was transplanted from abroad. I don’t know whether this is strictly true; probably not, but it is the sort of thing you would hear in Chandigarh. Like the rather pleasant but wholly manmade Sukhna Lake, it adds yet another touch of artificiality to a completely invented town of geometrical roundabouts and avenues with names like V-2 Vertical or V-4 Horizontal. “Chandigarh,” exclaimed an Indian academic whom I visited in Delhi, “is a symbol of all that is inauthentic about modern urban India.”

It depends, of course, on what one means by inauthentic. The idea of Chandigarh, conceived by Jawaharlal Nehru, prime minister at the time of the city’s (and post-imperial India’s) birth, was that it should be a new town, “symbolic of the freedom of India, unfettered by the traditions of the past…an expression of the nation’s faith in the future.” The Indian past was stained by centuries of humiliation. The Mughal style of Muslim invaders certainly wouldn’t do for a new Indian republic, nor would the Gothic or Indo-Saracenic fripperies of the British Raj. And since Nehru’s vision was of a modern, secular, democratic, internationalist state, some revamped Hindu style was hardly fitting either. Nehru, as Sunil Khilnani observes in his splendid book about definitions of the Indian nation, wanted India “to move forward by one decisive act that broke both with its ancient and its more recent history.” And so the city was built in the rationalist, International style, on an empty plain, after the removal of a few hundred villagers who would only budge once they had been reassured that they would be shot if they refused—thus government authority was proved to be genuine.

Le Corbusier had been waiting all his life for a leader like Nehru. He always had wanted to build a grand monument or, better still, an entire city for a brave new world: the Palace of the League of Nations in 1927, the Palace of Soviets in 1931, “Radiant Cities” for Mussolini and Marshal Pétain, the United Nations headquarters in 1947. But all these plans came to nothing. Now, at last, in 1950, when two representatives of the Punjab government, Chief Engineer P.L. Varna and Public Works Administrator P.N. Thapar, knocked on his door at 35, rue de Sèvres, in Paris, his chance had come. “Corbu” started on a typically imperious note. When invited to work in India, he told his guests that he could design their city just as well in Paris, and sent them off to Marseilles to admire his famous apartment building, Unité d’Habitation.

In the event, Corbu did go to India, twenty-two times. The basic plan for the city of Chandigarh was drawn up in a matter of hours. Corbu arrived, took out a sheet of paper and a crayon, and declared: “Voici la tête,” marking down the government buildings, “et voilà l’estomac, le cité-centre.” He knew his mind. “Doctrine,” he liked to say, “triumphs, and leads us along.” That is to say, Corbu’s doctrine. He enjoyed working in India. He found the workers, including women beavering away in colorful saris, “picturesque.” They were also very cheap. Workers were paid a pittance and were not even housed. But as Corbu remarked, “the advantage of slavery in high and noble works of architecture”2 was that one could change one’s mind on the spot, without worrying about escalating costs.

Corbu, then, was, as Khilnani dryly states, “an odd choice as democratic India’s first architect.” Yet he and Nehru seem to have understood each other, and played parallel roles. Khilnani, a political scientist who is currently working on Nehru’s biography, argues that constitutional democracy, based on universal suffrage, was handed down to his people by Nehru, not because of any great popular demand for it, but because Nehru believed in it. Having set up the institutions of democracy, Nehru would act as a kind of benevolent guide in secular politics: through practice, Indians would gradually get used to the mechanics of democracy. The tools—and buildings—came first, the rest would follow. The core of Khilnani’s argument is that Nehru’s political idea of India, focused on the state, was the one thing all Indians, whatever their caste or creed, would have in common. “The state,” in Khilnani’s words, “etched itself into the imagination of Indians in a way that no previous political agency had ever done.”


Just so, Corbu saw himself as a “friendly shepherd,” a berger amical, for aspiring Indian architects. Peter the Great brought European architects to St. Petersburg to show Russians how to build a civilized city, and in the process import modern European civilization itself. Chandigarh was Nehru’s Petersburg, and Corbu was his civilizer. It was as though the buildings would forge a new attitude to politics, to culture, to life.

One of the criticisms most often made of both Nehru and Corbu was their disregard for Indian conditions and traditions. If only Nehru’s idea of India had “reflected” the religious and cultural feelings of ordinary Indians more, so I was told by several intelligent people in India, the current backlash of Hindu chauvinism might never have come.

But it is unclear just how such feelings ought to have been reflected in government. Even the Hindu chauvinists are confused and divided over this. Some simply want to bash Muslims, while others want to turn India into a Hindu state. But since Hindus are a highly diverse people, with many different sects, and Hinduism never was a unified religion in the way of Islam or Christianity, the idea of a Hindu state has to be vague at best. Gandhi’s vision of India as a spiritual village society still has its admirers, but it is hardly practical.

Khilnani’s book is a masterful rebuttal to all cultural romantics and religious chauvinists. I think he is right when he says that Nehru “fully recognized the depth and plurality of religious beliefs in India. It was precisely this that convinced him of the need to keep social identities outside the political arena.” Again the parallel with Corbu’s modernist internationalism is striking. As Khilnani puts it, in a passage on Chandigarh: “In celebrating a wholly alien form, style and material, it aspired to a neutrality, a zero-degree condition that would make it equally resistant to the claims upon it of any and all cultural or religious groups.” But Nehru—Harrow, Cambridge, and Fabian socialism notwithstanding—was also an Indian nationalist. He did not simply want to copy the West. And Corbu’s Chandigarh was not meant to look like Europe. In a letter to his collaborators, Corbu said he strove after an “organic architecture…which is neither English, nor French, nor American, but Indian of the second half of the 20th century.”3

Curiously, Corbu liked to use the word “Hindu” instead of “Indian.” Three “Hindu architects” were to be attached to his Paris office, to receive an education in modernism, which remained in touch with “the Hindu civilization.” Corbu never made it clear what he meant by Hindu civilization. How could he? But perhaps his use of the term was Nehruvian too, in the sense that Nehru himself, while fighting all his life against caste prejudice, led a government that was dominated by high-caste Hindus. And Chandigarh, the home of bureaucrats, is nothing if not a high-caste Hindu city.

How has it all held up? I arrived in Chandigarh by train from Delhi. Indian trains have a class system, which is almost as complex as the order of castes. There are six classes. I was sitting in “A/C chair car,” which ranks above “ordinary first class,” but below “A/C first class,” I think. Next to me was a well-dressed young Punjabi, full of bouncing energy, who worked for a paint company. He loved Chandigarh. In words I was to hear again, it was “neat and clean,” so unlike Delhi, “a terrible place.” With one policeman for every hundred citizens, Chandigarh is also a very secure city. My companion loved Chandigarh precisely because it was not like the rest of India. But, he admitted, “the showing-off element is also there: big houses, Mercedes Benz, even Pierre Cardin, they are there.”

Chandigarh was built as a city of government. There is no industry to speak of, and not all that much commerce either. The first thing you notice on arrival at the station, apart from its remarkable cleanliness, is bureaucratic procedure. Instead of the free-for-all scramble that takes place elsewhere, you have to stand in line for a prepaid ticket for motor-rickshaws and taxis, with the result that everyone waits around endlessly: neat and clean, disciplined even, but hopelessly inefficient. As is true of other modern garden cities, such as Canberra, it is hard to tell where the city begins, or even if there is a city at all. You see straight roads and roundabouts, with bungalows and modern buildings peeping through the shrubbery. The “center,” called Sector 17, consists of a baking hot concrete square surrounded by shops. No one lives there. After 7:30 it is dead. Everyone will have gone home, to Sector 9, or 16, or 25, depending on one’s rank in the bureaucratic hierarchy. The lower the number, the higher your rank. Corbu’s showcase government buildings, the Secretariat, the High Court, and the Legislative Assembly, are in Sector 1.


But you don’t see Sector 1 until you are right in it. For between the “temples of democracy” (Nehru’s phrase) and the rest of the city is a vast space of trees, scrubland, and parks, filled, presumably, with those imported trees. The government buildings, huge in scale, yet oddly humbled by the view of the Himalayas on the horizon, have grandeur and beauty. To say they are too grand for a provincial government is to miss the point: these temples were meant to represent so much more than Haryana and Punjab.

Concrete looks better against the pale blue sky of northern India than in the watery gloom of western Europe. And Corbu’s sculptural genius is clear to see: in the curved roof of the Assembly, or the sun-breaking overhang on the façade of the High Court, with its astonishing splashes of green, red, and yellow. There are few decorations, of course, since Corbu’s modernism forbade that. But what decoration there is reflects not modern India, or “Hindu civilization,” but Corbu’s own mystical doodles: open hands, symbols of sun worship, and the male figure, representing Corbu’s ideal proportions, known as the Modulor.4

It is tempting to read metaphors into Corbu’s urban monuments stuck out there in the Punjabi plain. Each to his own preoccupations: Nirad Chaudhuri, the Bengali prophet of decadence, once compared Chandigarh to the Rolls Royces acquired and then abandoned by desert maharajas. 5 In his view, all forms of superior foreign civilization go to seed in the tropical sun. Others, younger and more to the left of the political spectrum, see Chandigarh as a mark of Indian subservience to Western models and masters. Yogendra Yadav, a political scientist in Delhi who complained to me about Chandigarh’s inauthenticity, was one of them. He told me that Corbusier “doesn’t exist in India, or in France, but inside ourselves.” This doesn’t mean that Indians of Nehru’s generation weren’t nationalists. They were, and often anti-Western too. (Interestingly, Corbu saw France and India as natural allies against “Americanism.”) But India, like most developing nations, has been prone to mimic those whose power it fears.

A young teacher at the College of Architecture told me how Corbu had become an Indian guru. “We follow his rules blindly,” the professor said. “That is our tradition.” Nothing in the main government buildings can be changed. And there it all is to this day, a little torn at the edges, but maintained with the same loving care Indians lavish on their Ambassador cars, modeled on the 1956 Morris Oxford. And one can see, scattered across India, gimcrack versions of Corbu’s designs: schools, banks, museums, apartment blocks, and so on. Some of them have remained empty. A museum curator in Delhi explained this to me with a shrug that expressed years of frustration: “In India, once a building goes up, it is recorded as being finished, without thinking about what to do with it.”

Khilnani regards Chandigarh as a failure. It never produced “a society of secular individuals or a modernist politics….” You see what he means right there in Sector 1. The Assembly, half of which is given to the legislature of Punjab and half to that of Haryana, is surrounded by steel fences and barbed wire, guarded by policemen with machine guns. You need a special permit to even get close to the temples of democracy. The reason for all this security is the car-bomb killing of Punjab’s chief minister by Sikh separatists two years ago. I was shown around by Sumit Kumar, secretary of the Secretariat. We stood in front of the Assembly and gazed across an immense plaza, a kind of concrete lake, on the other side of which you could make out the stark outlines of the High Court. Corbu designed the plaza as a meeting place for Chandigarh’s democratic citizens, who would gather there to discuss the politics of the day, like modern Athenians. It was deserted. Weeds sprouted here and there. “Security problems,” said Mr. Kumar. Did people come here before the terrorist attack? “Not really,” he said.

On one level, then, Chandigarh is the hollow shell of Indian democracy, a representation without content, a museum to the deadly rationalism of a French modernist architect and the naive optimism of the first Indian prime minister after Independence. Until this year, the citizens of Chandigarh didn’t even vote for their own local government. Chandigarh was governed directly from New Delhi. At best, this Indian Brasilia is a comfortable suburb for administrators and retired army officers, who dislike the squalid hurly-burly of urban India.

But there is, in fact, a little more to it. For once you get beyond first impressions, you notice how improvisation has humanized, and indeed “Indianized,” some of Corbu’s rationalism. Corbu designed huge car parks, at a time when the main form of transportation was the bullock cart. And wide shopping streets were built, instead of the customary open-air markets. Soon many of the car parks were turned into bazaars, not by architects but by ordinary citizens. “Non-planned development” is the phrase. The best examples of non-planned development are the slums, on the edges of town. There you can see not only the invasion of Corbu’s urban dream by poor, village India, but also signs that Nehru’s political ideals have actually worked after a fashion.

The slums are not called slums, but “colonies.” Poor workers were never supposed to stay in Chandigarh. After building Corbu’s monuments, they were meant to disappear to wherever they had come from. In fact, of course, they stayed, in illegal settlements which are really displaced villages. At first, the government would send in armed policemen to chase the people away and burn down their dwellings. But in time, as Nehru’s democracy took root, politicians began to see profit in the situation. In return for votes from the poor, they promised to legalize this colony and that. There were even cases where opposition politicians had slums set on fire, so they could promise to build them up again, if they got elected. In this rough and ready way, state patronage is beginning to seep down to the lowest castes, through their elected representatives.

You can tell a northern Indian slum by the presence of pigs rooting in the filth of the surrounding area, where men and boys squat in the grass to relieve themselves. I picked my way into a colony near the university, in the company of Mr. Kumar, looking immaculate in a cream suit, and a lawyer from the High Court, who held a white handkerchief to his nose. As slums in India go, this one was not so bad. Houses were made of mud and bricks. Some had roofs of corrugated iron. Many were covered in blue plastic sheets. Electricity was tapped from the wires passing overhead—illegally of course, but tolerated because of political protection. There were even TV sets. (“Television they want,” said Mr. Kumar, “but not schools.”) There was no sense of menace. People looked at us without interest. They were poorly dressed, the children often in rags. Many would have been Dalits, the lowest caste, whose traditional occupations, rag-picking, latrine-cleaning, sweeping, corpse-burying, and leather- curing, used to make them “untouchable.” The others would have been from “other backward classes,” or OBCs, who tend to be better off.

“These people,” explained Mr. Kumar, “have the power now. The politicians don’t care two hoots about us.” Here he pointed at his cream-suited chest. “But these people are the majority in India, and they all vote.” He did not say this in anger. But he was worried. For, as he put it, “good men don’t get elected.” Unscrupulous low-caste demagogues, who make irresponsible promises to the poor, are now voted in. For good government, he went on, you need good people. But there were too many ill-educated scoundrels in Indian politics now. “When you appeal to your caste, you go up, and when you are rational, you are going down. That is the nature of our politics now.”

So Khilnani is probably right. The idea of the state as a patron has taken hold of the Indian imagination, though perhaps not quite in the way Nehru had intended. In the last ten years or so, politics has divided Indians more than ever along caste and regional lines. Nehru’s idea of India has disintegrated into ideas of being a Hindu, a Tamil, or a Dalit. But Khilnani makes another case, which demands a degree of liberal optimism. He says that “constitutional democracy has proved to be the most reliable instrument available” for “civilizing political power.” I like to believe that this is true. But India has a way of stretching one’s faith to the limit.


The death of Nehruvian secularism is sometimes given a precise date: December 6, 1992. Communal poison had been dripping into Indian politics before, but on that day a mob of Hin-du fanatics tore down an unused sixteenth-century mosque in Ayodhya, called the Babri Masjid, because they believed that it had been constructed by Babur, founder of the Mughal dynasty, on the birth site of Ram, the myth-ical Hindu king. According to legend, there once had been a Ram temple there, and Hindu chauvinists vowed to “restore” it.

They came pouring into Ayodhya from other parts of Uttar Pradesh, as well as from Gujarat and Maharashtra in the west, Andra Pradesh in the center, and even Karnataka in the south—wild-haired, half-naked sadhus (Hindu ascetics), militant activists, urban youths in jeans and yellow headbands, true believers, and riffraff out for some violent sport. Most Muslims had fled, scared out of their wits by cars speeding through their neighborhoods, playing prerecorded sounds of riots and screams. For several years, the Hindu nationalists had been driven into a frenzy by politicians baying for Muslim blood on videos and cassette tapes, by TV soap operas about Ram and other Hindu heroes, and by stories in the press of Hindu “martyrdom,” after an earlier attempt to storm the mosque had ended in violence.

To egg them on further, there was the pseudoreligious procession of L.K. Advani, a former movie journalist and current leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who was driven, like a god-king, from Gujarat to Ayodhya in a Toyota dressed up as a chariot in a Hindu epic. The stated aim of the Hindu nationalists’ campaign was to build a new Ram temple on the site of the mosque. The real purpose was to mobilize a nationwide community of Hindus to vote for the BJP. The main challenge to Nehru’s vision came not from the hysterical mob but from politicians who had taken communalism into the mainstream of Indian politics.

By the time the rioters were dispersed on December 7, thirteen Muslim men and children, who had been unable to get away, had been murdered with knives and pickaxes. (Many more died in riots that erupted elsewhere.) More than twenty mosques were damaged. Muslim houses and shops were looted and burned to the ground. And the police, mostly low-caste Hindus, encouraged the mob by giggling at the violence or looking the other way. The looters sang a song in praise of Durga, the mother goddess. It went:

Mother, your sons are calling you. Come down; we shall cut our heads off and offer them to you. Bring your drinking bowl and we will fill it with blood. Listen to my pleas, Fulfil my wishes, Give me Ayodhya, give me Mathura, give me Kashi.6

Mathura is said to be the birth place of Krishna, the divine hero who married 16,000 milkmaids and fathered 160,000 children, and Kashi is the holy city of Benares, where another mosque was built by the Mughals on the site of a Hindu temple. Both are yet to be “liberated” by the Hindu mobs. The Benares mosque is closely guarded by armed police behind high fences.

Ayodhya is a complete contrast to Chandigarh: four hundred miles to the southeast of Corbu’s city, it is ancient, it is dirty, and it is full of temples, some of them very dilapidated, painted powder-blue, egg-yellow, or pistachio-green. It is located in the middle of Uttar Pradesh, the state in the Hindi belt which produced not just Nehru himself but eight of thirteen Indian prime ministers since independence. Muslims make up about 10 percent of the Ayodhya population, and until recent events they have lived there in peace. The clothes of Hindu priests are made largely by Muslim tailors. By the time I visited Ayodhya in October, most of the Muslims had come home. Local people didn’t want trouble, I was told. It had all been the work of “outsiders.”

I was taken to a temple, managed by a bankrupt businessman from Bihar. In the courtyard was a group of widows, old and young, who chanted praises to Ram. They were literally singing for their supper, for without the right to inherit, they were a burden on their families. I had been told that a powerful figure in the Vishva Hindu Parishad, or VHP, was staying at the temple. Since the VHP, a militant organization founded in 1964 to forge a unified Hindu community, had played a vital part in the Ayodhya affair, and was in effect the radical wing of the BJP, I was interested in meeting him. His name was Acharya Giriraj Kishore, the secretary general. After being thoroughly frisked by a bodyguard, I was shown into his presence.

Kishore was a small, round man, with long white hair. He lay on his bed, his pudgy hands glittering with gold. White caste marks were daubed on his forehead. The bodyguard, who wore expensive shoes and smelled of perfume, hovered around the door. I asked Kishore about the state of Indian politics. The main problem, he said, was the lack of national unity. Appeasement of the Muslims was a threat, and so was the US, which was scheming to make India fall apart, like the Soviet Union. I asked him about the Ram temple. It would be built in two years’ time, he said. If not, the VHP would “agitate.” I inquired what that might involve. He closed his eyes and remained silent for a while. Then, all of a sudden, he said something astonishing: “The solution to the Muslim problem is simple. The white men, the Hindus, and the Israelis must get together, and we will take care of the Muslim problem once and for all.”

In fact, no one is allowed to build anything on the site of the destroyed Babri Masjid. Hindu activists of the VHP, or the paramilitary RSS, are banned from the area.7 And to avoid further trouble, the central government bought the land. Absurdly, it has been left to the High Court in Delhi to sort out who has more claim to the holy place, Hindus or Muslims. Lawyers will have to ponder whether the legendary Ram was really born there, whether there ever was a Hindu temple, and exactly what Babur did in 1528. Possibly, there never will be a verdict, which would suit the government just fine. Meanwhile worshippers are allowed to pay their respects to an idol of Ram, located in an improvised shrine on top of the demolished mosque. And hundreds of workmen in Ayodhya, paid by the VHP, are chiseling and carving away at expensive blocks of pink Rajasthani stone for a Ram temple that may never be built. “It is all political,” said a local journalist, who took me around. “They want to show the Hindus that work is in progress.”

At present the site is like an armed fortress. First you have to get through two police roadblocks. Then you wend your way through a steel cage, guarded by armed constabulary officers, past more check points, until you get to the shrine, which you can just see through iron bars and barbed wire. The shrine, containing Ram and Hanuman, the monkey god, is surrounded by policemen. Worshippers are told to keep moving on. No one is able to linger. A bank of ten television monitors covers every entrance. One was out of order. A monkey had bitten through the wire. I later thought of this scene when I visited the temples of democracy in Chandigarh. The irony seemed perfect: rationalism and religion, modernity and tradition, Corbu’s temples and Ram’s shrine, all of them under armed guard, all for political show.

And yet the neat juxtaposition would be misleading. For Hindu nationalism is as modern as Nehru’s secular idea of India. In a way, Ayodhya and Chandigarh are two sides of a single coin. The most exhaustive book on Hindu nationalism is by the French scholar Christophe Jaffrelot.8 It is perhaps too exhaustive for the non-specialist, who will be overwhelmed by detail. But it is a scholarly tour de force, and Jaffrelot’s argument is clear enough. Hindu nationalism is neither ancient nor religious; it is a political phenomenon which started in the 1920s, when Indian intellectuals were wrestling with ideas of the Indian nation. A key text, quoted by Jaffrelot, is V.D. Savarkar’s Hindutva: Who Is a Hindu?, published in 1923. Savarkar was inspired by Mazzini, Darwin, and Herbert Spencer. But his main inspiration was fear—fear that the “weak,” diverse, disunited Hindus, who lacked an ideology, a dogma, a Mecca, or a universal church, would be swamped by “strong” Muslims and Christians. This fear is still at the core of Hindu nationalism today. That is why VHP demagogues in 1992 promised to purge Ayodhya of Muslims and make it the Hindu Vatican.

Savarkar, like many European thinkers who used religion to concoct national identities, was not a pious man himself. But he thought Hindu rituals and pilgrimages were useful “from a national and racial point of view.” Ram, the idol of worship in Ayodhya, is not worshiped as a deity by all Hindus. Only the Vaishnavas—the followers of Vishnu, of whom Ram is an incarnation—do so. But to Savarkar and his modern followers Ram is the symbolic king of the Hindus, the father of the nation. “Some of us,” he wrote, “worship Ram as an incarnation, some admire him as a hero and a warrior, all love him as the most illustrious representative monarch of our race.”9

Unlike Gandhi, who used the imagery of village India to challenge the British Raj, Hindu nationalists imitated the symbols of British power. The RSS, founded in 1925 as a para-military Hindu sect, drilled its youngsters, dressed in khaki shorts, to British martial music. Most Hindu nationalists were of high castes. Their idea of India was as a powerful, upper-caste Hindu nation. Gandhi wanted to emancipate the untouchables and protect the Muslims. This was enough reason for a Hindu fanatic with a fascination for Savarkar to assassinate him.

Indian political debates during the last decades of the British Empire were not so different from those taking place in Europe, or China, or Japan. Should a modern nation-state be secular, democratic, and ethnically neutral, or should it “reflect” a unified culture, religion, or race? Hindu chauvinism has often been compared to fascism, or even Nazism. Jaffrelot shows how some important Hindu ideologues admired Hitler, and were inspired by German ideas. He quotes the RSS guru, M.S. Golwalkar:

To keep up the purity of the Race and its culture, Germany shocked the world by her purging the country of the semitic Races—the Jews. Race pride at its highest has been manifested here. Germany has also shown how well nigh impossible it is for Races and cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one united whole, a good lesson for us in Hindustan to learn and profit by.

But Jaffrelot warns against simple equations. Hindus rarely made a fetish of blood or race. Rather, they wanted to incorporate all minorities in the Hindu fold. They still do. I saw pictures of Mother Theresa in shrines to Durga, the Mother Goddess. And I was told by a BJP spokesman in Lucknow that since Indian Muslims were converts, Ram was their divine ancestor too. The problem with Muslims has been their refusal to renounce their faith.


Still, for at least thirty years after independence, Nehru’s idea of India prevailed. It was forbidden by law to use religious symbols for electoral purposes. By securing the support for his Congress Party of most high-caste Hindus, including many traditionalists, and of the Muslims, whose interests he tried to protect, he pushed the Hindu chauvinists to the extremist fringe. And the socialists and Communists in opposition shared his secular views. Nonetheless, as Jaffrelot points out, the seeds of future trouble were already planted in 1948, by the Congress Party itself, in Ayodhya. The Congress candidate painted his socialist opponent in a by-election as a materialist lacking in Hindu spiritual values, while presenting himself as a paragon of Hindu orthodoxy. In the following year, Hindu fanatics broke into the Ayodhya mosque and placed an idol of Ram there. Devotees greeted this event as a miracle.

Further dents in Nehru’s secular edifice were made by his daughter, Indira, who replaced his de haut en bas democracy by what Sunil Khilnani calls “a Jacobin conception of direct popular sovereignty.” More and more people began to vote. And to gain their support, Mrs. Gandhi made deals with Sikh separatists, Hindu nationalists, and Muslims, promising state patronage in exchange for votes. Her son Rajiv continued the process. Despite India’s secular constitution, Muslims were allowed to retain special marriage laws—to the advantage of Muslim men but not Muslim women, whose rights, after a divorce, are limited. As though to restore the balance, Rajiv kicked off his 1989 election campaign near Ayodhya, because, he declared, it was “the land of Ram, this holy land.” And it was Rajiv who gave instruction to unlock the gates of the disputed but defunct Ayodhya mosque, as the first step to a Hindu restoration.

The result of these gestures to communal sentiments was described to me by a weary senior bureaucrat in Luck- now, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, whose confidence in politicians had ebbed with his years in their service. He had a picture of Nehru on his office wall. He said the worst mistake of the Gandhis (mother and son) was to make the Congress Party “play on the same wicket as the BJP.” By playing politics with caste and creed, they made Hindu nationalism respectable. So when the Congress monopoly on power collapsed roughly at the end of the cold war,10 many high-caste Hindu traditionalists transferred their allegiance to the BJP.11 V.S. Naipaul has described this as a great awakening, a necessary stage in “self-awareness.”12 This might betray a degree of historical naiveté. If anything was reawakened, it was Sarvarkar’s idea of India, which had been so deftly discredited by Nehru.

BJP politics plays on high-caste Hindu fears and frustrations: fear that lower castes, through positive discrimination (“reservations”), will squeeze high-caste Hindus out of overcrowded government jobs; fear that Muslims enjoy unfair privileges, or, by being “backward,” keep India weak and poor. Since Muslims and low-caste Hindus are getting politically active, high-caste Hindus feel vulnerable. They sense that their dominance is slipping. What the BJP promises is not so much the restoration of a Hindu Golden Age as a strong, modern Hindu state with Ayodyha as its Vatican. Nothing about this is traditional, or even necessarily antidemocratic. Although the increased importance of communal politics has shaken the faith of some people in India’s democracy, Sunil Khilnani is not one of them. He writes, again, I think, with wisdom:

Regional and caste politics, and Hindu nationalism, embody different potentialities, but they are all direct products of India’s first four decades of independence. It is wrong to see them as atavistic forms that repudiate or attack the ideas of the state and democracy; on the contrary, they exemplify the triumphant success of these ideas.

But what of his other argument, about the civilizing process of constitutional democracy? Destroying mosques and killing Muslims is hardly civilized behavior. The current level of violence is nothing compared to the carnage that took place during Partition, but it has been steadily rising since the 1950s. The reaction to the violence in Ayodhya has been interesting, however. Even the BJP leaders appear to have been shocked by what they had set in motion, if not actively organized. Advani, and others, were arrested by the central government for inciting communal violence. Public disapproval ran so high that the BJP did badly in the 1993 state elections of Uttar Pradesh. As a result, the BJP was forced to share the state government with the BSP (Bahujan Samaj Party), a party of Dalits, the lowest caste. The BSP is led by the forty-one-year-old Mrs. Mayawati, a Dalit herself.13 This peculiar alliance, of high castes and the very lowest, alternating in power every six months, was based on their shared dislike of a third party, the SP (Samajwadi Party), which represents the “other backward classes” (OBCs). These other low castes have increasingly moved out of dire poverty by becoming small landowners, businessmen, and civil servants. Many policemen are OBCs. So are most of the thugs who beat up Muslims or, indeed, Dalits.14

A short walk around my hotel in Lucknow revealed something about the present state of India, or at least of its Hindi belt. There was a general air of national assertion, with a hint of aggression. Outside the hotel entrance was a large new statue of Subhas Chandra Bose, the militant Bengali nationalist who allied himself to the Imperial Japanese army during the war. His picture can often be seen in VHP and RSS offices. Bose was one of those men whose idea of nationhood was based on military discipline and the Führerprinzip. There he stands, the rotund tough guy, in his jackboots and his uniform, a strutting reproach to the gentler Gandhi and the brooding Anglophile Nehru.

Behind the statue of Bose, I examined the billboards advertising computer courses, schools, and consumer products: “Totally modern, totally Indian.” A college, promising bright career prospects, advertised itself by saying: “Be Indian, stay Indian. Now go for an education that is totally Indian—with us.” Under the billboards was a slum of terrifying poverty: hovels made of rags, black with grime; children with copper-colored hair, caused by malnutrition, played in the rubbish, where men were defecating. They were Dalits.

The assertion of national identity was striking, but the assertion of caste identity was even more so. One of the first things Mrs. Mayawati did as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh was to build statues of B.R. Ambedkar, the leader of the “untouchables.” Ambedkar, shown as a bespectacled figure pointing, Lenin-like, to a better future, was of the lowest caste himself. As Nehru’s law minister in 1947, he helped to frame the national constitution, which outlawed caste discrimination. But he was so disillusioned by the lack of actual progress that he resigned from politics and became a Buddhist. During the six months of Mrs. Mayawati’s rule, Ambedkar suddenly appeared everywhere, in Lucknow, in “Ambedkar villages” around Lucknow, and indeed all over Uttar Pradesh. The demand for Ambedkar statues was so pressing that there were not enough sculptors to go round. A large bronze Ambedkar now stands in the center of Lucknow, opposite an older, more modest-sized Gandhi.

Inside the back of Ambedkar’s statue is a heavily guarded police box. “Security problems,” I was told. Ashok Priyadarshi, the secretary to the Uttar Pradesh government, took me to see Mrs. Mayawati’s grandest project: Ambedkar Park. On the way he explained that Mrs. Mayawati had changed the political scene in U.P. forever. The statues and the Ambedkar villages may look like nothing but gestures, but they amount to more than that. The Dalits have woken up. They will assert their power through the ballot box. He told me this in the neutral style of a civil servant. But when we drove past Ambedkar Park, a huge building site with skeletons of fantastic, modern buildings in pink and white stone, his manner changed. He shook his head sadly, and said: “All that money. Where did it all come from? Who will account for it? All that corruption, that is there…” Mr. Priyadarshi was not even sure what the buildings were for. One was to be an international hotel, he thought, and another, well, a science institute maybe?

Perhaps we will never know. In October, the BJP took its turn to govern U.P. Instantly government jobs started going to BJP supporters. Dalits were officially warned not to “abuse” the laws that protected them against caste discrimination. Mrs. Mayawati was accused of corruption. Some members of her party defected. Violent scenes followed in the state legislature. Politicians pelted each other with chairs, microphones, inkstands, or whatever else came to hand. Some ended up in hospital. The central government was asked to dissolve the unruly government of Uttar Pradesh and impose presidential rule. Despite fierce opposition from regional parties in the government, it agreed to do so. But when the President asked the Cabinet to reconsider, the decision was reversed. The BJP called this a great day for democracy. But it was a bad day for Prime Minister I.K. Gujral’s shaky coalition government in Delhi. The debacle exposed divisions in the central government, which are as deep as those which tore apart the state government of U.P.

I called Mr. Priyardashi to ask him what was going on now in Ambedkar Park. Building was slowly coming to a halt, he said. It is now “subject to enquiry,” he said. “Massive bungling,” he said. “Many heads will roll,” he said. He didn’t sound overly disturbed. He had seen it all before.

—November 6, 1997

This Issue

December 4, 1997