Dynamics of State Formation – India and Europe Compared
Reviewed by Dr Gurdarshan Singh Dhillon

Edited by Martin Doornbos & Sudipta Kaviraj
Published by Sage Publications, New Delhi, 1997
ISBN 0-8039-9335-8 (US-hb) 81-7036-574-0 (India-hb)
Pages: 441; Price: Rs. 475/- (India-hb)

The book under review is a collection of papers presented by eminent scholars at a seminar held in New Delhi in March 1990 on the Comparative Study of State Formation Processes in India and Europe. The seminar was sponsored and funded by the Indo-Dutch Programme on Alternatives in Development (IDPAD).

Both Europe and India are large and complex societies and are passing through a phase of transition, challenges and uncertainties. Both are undergoing major transformations at all levels — social, economic and political. There are vast differences between the two cases, yet there are similarities which a keen observer cannot fail to discern. The contributors to the volume seek to explore these differences and similarities in the patterns of state formation in India and Europe.

Essays in the first section of the book deal with the dynamics of state formation and the history of early state forms against the backdrop of Indian and European cultural traditions. S.N. Eisenstadt and Harriet Hartman try to compare and contrast the historical experience in institutional formations and dynamics in medieval and early modern Europe and India. They point out that Indian civilisation, on account of its transcendental and otherworldly orientation could not clearly define itself in political terms. In ancient and medieval Indian history, the political arena was characterised by a high degree of local autonomy. Decentralisation of power has been a basic component of most Indian political systems. Kingdoms of various sizes were constantly competing with each other resulting in an instability temporarily overcome by exceptionally strong rulers who formed strong networks of personal ties and espionage. Few polities came close to achieving anything like total unity of the sub-continent. Even in great kingdoms or empires, such as Mauryan, Gupta or even in the Delhi Sultanate, access to bureaucratic or administrative power was an issue of loyalty or personal relations to the king. Under all regimes, the central administration was dependent on the local elites for the collection of taxes and other free-floating resources, and the access to these elites continued to be based on local criteria such as the dominant caste status. The big gap between the centre and the periphery could not be bridged under any of these empires. These writers observe that the major centre of Indian civilisation was not political; but the religious-ritual, one which consisted of a series of networks and organisational ritual subcentres — pilgrimage shrines and networks, temples, sects, schools — spread throughout the sub-continent and often cutting across political boundaries. The core of the civil society was the relative autonomy of the major social groups. Autonomy and caste system were two important features of the old Indian social structure which had far-reaching repercussions on the political dynamics that developed in India.

Wars of religion and basic ideological confrontation did not develop between the state and society until very recent times under the impact of European modernity.

In contrast to this, the political goals in Europe were closely interwoven with and legitimised by attempts to impose a religion on a society and to redraw the political boundaries accordingly. The state was subordinated to spiritual dominion. The ideal of political unification manifest in the establishment of the holy Roman Empire, despite its fragile institutional bases, constituted a basic continuous model, an ideal which was later transformed into modern nation states.

Herman van der Dunk, in his illuminating paper, The Formation of Modern States in Europe, while discussing the concepts of nation and state, reveals how the autonomy of the traditional national state has been considerably undermined, partly due to the irreversible processes of trans-nationalisation and globalisation and partly due to the emergence of regional and ethnic subgroups claiming autonomy.

Satish Sabherwal makes an insightful appraisal of the two sets of traditions in India, multiplicity of indigenous patterns and the Western model. He also brings to light the tensions, latent or manifest, between the two sets of traditions which have had a direct bearing on the contemporary Indian scene. He reveals that the ethic of public responsibility, so vital for a democratic polity, has been a weak tradition in our country and ‘role models of wide-ranging accountability’ cannot be easily found in Indian history.

In the second part of the book Abram de Swaan makes a comparative study of language politics in India and Europe. This comparison is based on a model of conflict of language interests. Martin Doornbos makes a parallel study of India and Europe with regard to their respective search for new definitions of collective identity. He believes that in both cases a major question concerns the relations between secularism and cultural identity. He emphasises the need to recognise common issues at stake both in the East and the West arising out of the confrontation between the technological modernising pressures and defence of cultural specifics.

The next section of the book examines the role of the state and citizenship. Bhikhu Parekh takes a somewhat sceptical view of the dominant model or theory of the state which has gained political and philosophical ascendancy in recent times. He believes that such a theory presupposes a culturally homogeneous society and becomes a source of disorder, injustice and violence when applied to culturally heterogeneous societies. He stresses the need to adopt a pluralist theory of the state which should be sensitive to cultural diversity. Lolle Nauta argues that at the end of the twentieth century there is a universal need to adopt new concepts of active citizenship which eventually could lead to a transformation of civic roles. A cosmopolitan society requires new virtues in its citizens. Traditional definitions of citizenship are subjected to criticism and rejected. Sudipta Kaviraj makes a brilliant academic analysis of the complex nature of the crisis faced by the modern state in India. He explores the ideological and institutional roots of the Indian nation-state and its policies and practices along with their politico-economic and sociological ramifications in the post-independence period. Harry de Haan makes an insightful review of planning and market in the light of recent experiences of Europe and India.

Next part of the book examines the trends of marginalization and the emergence of social movements in the current context. Veena Das makes an intensive study of the subject of cultural roots and the definition of community. Hans Peter Krieso and Gerrit Huizer make a detailed investigation of social movements in Europe.

The concluding section of the book provides perspectives on patterns of state formation and social transformation in India and Europe. Ravinder Kumar focuses on the evolution of political system and institutions in India. He rightly points out that experience of state formation in India and Europe is a subject of abiding interest for scholars as well as political actions.

The approach of the book is mainly historical. Knowledge of historical legacies is useful so far as it helps gain a sensitive understanding of the underlying structures and traditions which continue to influence and shape the political realm in a subtle fashion. The ruling elites often try to project and propagate a lop-sided view of the political world based on a dichotomy between traditional and modern. Such a dichotomous view can be very misleading. Misapprehension or misrepresentation of the past can also lead to disastrous consequences.

The book illuminates the past for the benefit of men at the helm of affairs, political scientists, sociologists and economists, who may draw knowledge and comprehension needed for their formulations. A very large number of writers, political theorists and economists accept the basic distinction between the East and the West as the starting point for their theories. The uniqueness of the book under review lies in examining the similarities as well as the differences in the patterns of state formation in the East and the West. It offers new perspectives on comparative politics.

At the beginning of the new millennium, when a major part of the world is in a state of flux and an enlightened section of mankind is nursing dreams of globalisation, the learned contributors to the book address a wide range of vital questions concerning the drift from traditional nation-states, emergence of supra-national authorities and also the emergence of regional entities claiming autonomy. Which of these will be the dominating tendency of the future ? Post-modernism has yet to unfold itself in its true ramifications. Diverse analyses presented in the book would enable the readers to examine the issues in the national and global contexts and arrive at a correct perspective.

The well-researched book breaks new ground in a comparatively unexplored area. The editors would have done well to include a comprehensive index for the convenience of the readers.


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