A State of Contradictions: The Post-Colonial State in India by Sudipta Kaviraj — A Summary

Title: A State of Contradictions: The Post-Colonial State in India
Author: Sudipta Kaviraj
Publication: Sudipta Kaviraj (2010) The Imaginary Institutions of India

Note: Why ‘state of contradictions’? Good question! Count the number of times ‘paradox’/paradoxically’ or ‘contradictions/contradictory’ appear in this summary. 


The modern state has seen success outside of Europe in two senses: instrumental and ideational. The former relates to the unprecedented increase in state power which allowed it to extend its control over the colonies. The latter relates to the enthusiastic acceptance of the sovereign modern state in the colonies post decolonisation. And over the years, this state has emerged as the central agency driving non-Western modernity.

The essay seeks to examine the post-colonial form of the modern state that took form in India and the insights that could be generalised from the Indian case. The insight is that democratic success outside Europe is more likely to follow the Indian rather than the European trajectory.

In this essay, ‘post-colonial’ is understood not simply as the situation after decolonization but strongly as a product of colonial history. This necessitates looking at the state from a long term historical perspective and tracing the transformation of political power brought about by colonialism.

Unlike Europe where economic and intellectual transformations brought about modernity, in India, modernity shaped the country’s economic and intellectual foundations. This ‘politics’, initially, started with the establishment of institutions of colonial rule which creating the colonial state where the British rulers and the Indian elites exercised influence. This was followed by the state’s extension, from the 1920s, to a more inclusive but still limited transformative nationalist movement and then, since the 1970s, its evolution into a truly expansive activity with the entry of lower class politicians.

This change in the nature and reach of the state, and this is the central idea of the essay, is the result of the transformation of a religiously determined and coordinated society, where the state was only marginal and worked to uphold that religious system, to a state controlled order. The ‘European’ state has since expanded its jurisdiction and has come to occupy a central position both in its instrumental and ideational senses.


‘Hindu’ society had been ordered in terms of caste which manifested as the four varnas in the formal ritualistic structure and as the numerous jatis in the effective sociological structure. The caste order grants monopoly over ritual status/religious prestige, political power, and economic wealth to three separate classes. This is in stark contrast to the aristocracies of the west where the latter two and sometimes even all three coincided in a single group.

This arrangement is significant because it meant that political rulers were mere ‘executive’ functionaries upholding and administering the social order and its ‘immutable’ norms already ‘legislated’ by religion. Placed between the Brahmins and the Vaishyas in the caste hierarchy, the Kshatriyas, the rulers, were separated from yet dependent on the other two castes. Thus, the idea of modern sovereignty could not apply to the political authority of the Hindu society.

And of the coming of Islamic rule, it can be said while its religion exhibited fundamental differences, they had little effect on the relationship between political authority and social order in India. The unstoppable force of the Islamic military power met and learnt to co-exist with the immovable structure of the Hindu caste system.


Colonialism was not uniform owing to the societal diversity of the European states themselves many of which deployed different projects in different places as well the societal diversity of the colonies which deployed their own cultural and political resources in the colonial encounter.

India is a peculiar case in that British advance was met with enthusiasm and support from a substantial cross-section of the emergent Indian public, especially India’s elites. The crucial initial phase of colonialism was not so much the establishment of the colonial state but rather the extension of colonial power.

This is where the contradictions come to the fore. British power at first was limited to instruments of trade and revenue collection. Slowly, ‘modern cultural apparatuses’, were introduced turning it into the modern state. With regard to this advance, Indian opinion was deeply ambivalent. Traditional centres of power like the conservative Brahmins and old aristocracies were understandably hostile. However, new commercial interests, aspirant political groups, and modern professional elites were supportive and welcoming.

The colonial state suffered contradictory impulses. Administrative thinking advocated against meddling in the social affairs of the on arguing that such interventions without fully understanding Indian society would create discontent. It was the unflinching initiative of the native reformers that compelled the British to end, for example, sati. But the thrust towards restructuring the Indian society on rational lines, for many a justification of colonial rule, was very much alive. This oscillation between reform and non-interference created space for nationalist politics, even if limited to the elites, to grow.

The establishment of liberalism in Britain which coincided with the colonial rule in India introduced internal contradictions in the Indian empire. The passionate advocacy of liberal principles in Britain was being carried out against the backdrop of a distinctly illiberal regime in the colonies. Educated Indians argued against colonialism using the same language as the liberals.

The non-realisation of liberal principles was effected in one of two ways. The first was simply to ignore the principles in practice. This allowed the nationalists to accuse the British of dishonesty. The second was Mill’s stage theory of history which laid down a certain ‘stage of civilization’ as a prerequisite for representative institutions, as stage which the Indians, apparently, had yet to reach. This argument was a veiled acknowledgement of the universality of liberal principles and pushed the British to the backfoot in their ideological defence.


The Indian state after Independence had a contradictory inheritance. It was the heir to both the British colonial state and the Indian nationalist movement. The legal institutions and the coercive apparatuses of the state against which the nationalist movement had fought against were largely left unaltered. What changed, however, was the introduction of universal adult franchise and the expansion of state responsibilities beyond law and order into welfare and development.

There was also the simultaneous consolidation, somewhat paradoxically, of the ‘logic of bureaucracy’ and the ‘logic of democracy’ — both rooted in the colonial rule.

The bureaucracy, impelled by considerations of efficiency during the colonial period, found application in Independent India as a necessary institution for its developmental agenda. Nehru imbued the state with a distinct ‘developmentalist and redistributivist ideology’ and made it the agent of development tasked with direct management of production and redistribution. As a result, the bureaucracy expanded significantly leading, paradoxically, to the rise of the overextended, corrupt and inefficient state.

In the 1970s, the developmental state underwent a subtle change in character. Nehru accorded autonomy in managerial and decisional matters to the enterprises constituting the developmental state. But after his death, the vast increase in their resources attracted attention of political leaders and ministers who sought control over their operations. The coherence of planning and ideology which was an essential feature of the Nehruvian state gave way to the ‘business’ of politics which (mis)used state resources for short term political gains.

While all these were happening, democracy expanded. Democracy came to India through a single stroke of political inclusion. But this did not translate to real political participation of the illiterate majority at least in the beginning which, paradoxically, ensured the proper functioning of democratic government as the short-term pressures of electoral politics did not obstruct long-term rational strategies.

The situation, however, changed in the 1970s. First of all, the well of legitimacy gifted by the legacy of the national struggle had dried up which forced the new generation of leaders to exploit the power of short term electoral promises. Also, the ordinary voters had learnt the strategic value of their vote and made greater demands on the political system.

As such, politics became increasingly ‘vernacular’ both in the literal and conceptual sense. Not only did the new politicians speak vernacular languages but they also lacked the foundational knowledge of Western precedents like liberalism and socialism and, instead, introduced vernacular concepts into the political discourse. Democracy was truly revolutionary in so far as it led to a ‘real redistribution of dignity’.

With the rise of economic modernity, caste observances have declined in private lives but thanks to democracy, caste identities have become more assertive even, paradoxically, demanding recognition of equality among caste groups. This defies general schemes of characterisation as the use of caste in this unprecedented modern formulation is not wholly modern yet not wholly fully traditional.

Also, the discourse on rights and equality has been dominated by demands for the primacy group rights and equality rather than those of the individual. The politics of community assertion drives a wedge between the principles of procedural propriety and participatory politics which are central to the complex of democracy. Political parties representing large communities point to established procedures of government — like secularism and positive discrimination — as obstacles to their pursuit of justice. This could explain the rise of Hindu nationalist ideology as a countermove against the increasing weight of lower and formerly marginalised caste-groups in Indian politics. Using an inflammatory rhetoric of restitutive justice and by insinuating discrimination against the Hindus, the BJP has garnered substantial upper-caste backing.

There is also the simultaneous power of both the bureaucracy and democracy. This apparent paradox between statist and participatory tendencies is resolved when the rise of participatory politics is seen to generate greater demands on the state to deliver the expectations of the voters. Democracy, in other words, has reinforced the state.

It can be argued that export of the ‘European’ state to other parts of the world have largely failed, often disastrously. But the experience of India forces a different conclusion. For all its ‘unsuitable’ cultural and economic conditions, India has successfully adopted and practiced democracy since its Independence not simply in the mere continuance of electoral politics but also in fundamentally transforming the social relations of everyday lives. If democracy succeeds in other non-European societies in the future, their trajectories are more likely to resemble that of India than the European ones.


Published by


I am chronic procrastinator.